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SMALL COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF ROUNDUP: Division II, III title games set; Ga. Southern tries to get to FCS title game

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

FLORENCE, Ala. -- Delta State is the unranked team peaking at the right time. No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth is the Division II power trying to complete a perfect season and capture its second national championship in three years.

These two seemingly mismatched teams will meet Saturday for the national title at the University of North Alabama's Braly Municipal Stadium. It's a small-scale version of would-be BCS busters Boise State or TCU getting a crack at one of major college football's high-and-mighty.

"The beauty of Division II football is it gives you championship football," Delta State coach Ron Roberts said. "You have to win it on the field. There isn't any question about who was ranked highest in October or November, but who's playing the best football right now. You don't get to bring your record in, you've got to play it on the field. That's all we want, is just the opportunity to compete for it."

Delta State (11-3) is the first unranked team to play for a Division II national title and only the third three-loss team to make it this far in 38 championship games. The Delta Devils, who won five games by six points or less in the regular season, have coasted through three playoff games by a combined 56 points.

Minnesota-Duluth (14-0) cruised through the regular season, winning every game by at least 20 points. The playoffs haven't been nearly so effortless.

The Bulldogs have an overtime win over St. Cloud, beat Augustana 24-13 and rallied for a 17-13 win over Northwest Missouri State.

"Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence, and we've been able to find a way," coach Bob Nielson said. "And those are games that many times leading into a championship, help you in terms of building some confidence."

Both teams have won on their only previous championship game appearance, Delta State in 2000 and Minnesota-Duluth two years ago. Only three Division II teams have finished 15-0, including that Minnesota-Duluth championship team, Northwest Missouri State (1998) and Grand Valley State (2006).

Roberts doesn't think facing the No. 1 team will faze his players.

"We're not intimidated at all," he said. "We know they're a very good football team. We know they're probably the best we've seen all year, but we're not intimidated at all. We're going to come out and play the best football we can.

"We're excited about having the opportunity to play somebody who's 14-0 and wants to run the table. They won an '08 national championship. All those things, I think as a competitor, that's got to get your juices flowing."

Delta State's defense faces a sizable challenge. The Statesmen rank 97th in Division II in total yards allowed, and one spot higher against the pass and a notch lower against the run.

Minnesota-Duluth is averaging 278 yards on the ground, with backs Brad Foss and Isaac Odim combining for 1,887 yards and 28 touchdowns. Quarterback Chase Vogler has run for 822 yards and seven touchdowns while passing for another 1,795 and 16 scores against just three interceptions. He has a deep threat in receiver D.J. Winfield, who is averaging 22 yards on 45 catches.

The Bulldogs will be facing a defense with 16 first- or second-teamers in their debut season with Delta State, which helps explain why the team has made so many strides as the season progressed.

Florence native Micah Davis has led Delta State's offense, passing for 3,854 yards and 31 touchdowns. He has also been intercepted 18 times.

Trevar Deed has run for 1,101 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now, the Statesmen find out just how far they've come.

"Right now, we're kind of hot on both sides of the ball," Davis said. "We've done a good job of executing. The defense has done a good job of stopping people. Right now, I guess you could say we're hot and we're ready to play."

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GEORGIA SOUTHERN LOOKS TO CONTINUE RUN:

Georgia Southern travels to Delaware today for an NCAA FCS semifinal game against the fifth-ranked Blue Hens. The Eagles advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2002 with a 23-20 win against Wofford, while Delaware defeated New Hampshire, 16-3, to move into the semifinal round. UD last played in the semifinals in 2007 before facing Appalachian State in the FCS National Championship game.

Third-seeded Delaware and Georgia Southern square off for the first time since a Blue Hens win in the 2002 season opener, which was also K.C. Keeler's debut as the Hens' head coach.

The two teams last met in the playoffs in 2000 when the Eagles won the semifinal game at Delaware Stadium en route to an unprecedented sixth national championship.

The Eagles celebrated three anniversaries during the 2010 season: the 25th anniversary of the first championship in 1985 (more than 50 members of the 1985 team returned for the Wofford game Oct. 9), the 20th anniversary of the 1990 championship and the 10th anniversary of the 2000 championship (both teams honored on Nov. 6).

In his first year as head coach at Georgia Southern, Jeff Monken guided the Eagles to their first playoff victory since 2002 with the 41-16 win over No. 11 South Carolina State. Georgia Southern followed up the first-round playoff win with a second-round triumph over fourth-ranked and second-seeded William & Mary 31-15 and quarterfinal win over Southern Conference foe Wofford, 23-21.

With 21 years of coaching experience, the Joliet, Ill., native has compiled a 10-4 overall record and recorded a 5-3 mark in Southern Conference play. In November, the Eagles defeated then-top-ranked and previously undefeated Appalachian State, 21-14, in overtime at Paulson Stadium and picked up road wins at Western Carolina and Furman to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA FCS playoffs.

Monken served for five years as an assistant coach on Paul Johnson's staff at Georgia Southern from 1997-2001. During that time, the Eagles went 62 and 10, winning five straight SoCon championships and two national titles. He joined Johnson at Navy, helping the Midshipmen to five straight bowl appearances, and then at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets won an ACC title and earned an Orange Bowl berth in 2009.

Keeler is in his ninth season leading the Delaware program and 18th season overall as a head coach. A Delaware alum and standout linebacker for the Blue Hens' 1979 NCAA Division II national title team, Keeler owns a 10-2 mark in playoff action at UD and has a perfect 7-0 playoff record at Delaware Stadium.

A 2010 finalist for Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year, Keeler guided the Hens to a national championship in 2003 and national championship appearance in 2007. Delaware has won three conference titles under his tutelage (2003, 2004 and 2010) and has advanced to the NCAA FCS semifinals for the third time (2003, 2007 and 2010) in his career.

Keeler's tenure at Rowan College also produced numerous NCAA playoff appearances. In nine seasons Keeler and the Profs registered an 88-21-1 record with seven trips to the postseason, including five championship game appearances.

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DIVISION III FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP:

As rivalries go, there may be none in team sports that routinely has stakes as high as those on the line when Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater meet in football.

The teams will play for the record sixth consecutive season in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, with the winner leaving Salem, Va., Saturday as the Division III national champion.

No other football teams in NCAA history have reached the championship game six years in a row, and only Division III Augustana, Ill., also played in five straight from 1982 to 1986.

Familiarity with the high stakes, it seems, breeds comfort.

"It's a business trip," Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Matt Weber, a senior, said this week of his fourth trip to Salem. "We're here to play and win in a football game."

Wisconsin-Whitewater (14-0) won last year, 38-28. The Warhawks also won the title in 2007, and have won 29 games in a row -- and 56 of 59 -- under fourth-year coach Lance Leipold.

Still, they were not even the top seed in their region of the tournament this year, and had to win at North Central two weeks ago, and then at Wesley last week, to get here.

"I think we have a little chip on our shoulder playing," wide receiver Aaron Rusch said. "Whether we're on the road or at home, we'll be giving it our all and I know we'll be well prepared. ... We're here now and we'll do what we can to get a win on Saturday."

For all the gaudiness of Leipold's .949 career winning percentage as a coach, Mount Union coach Larry Kehres has a similar percentage -- .927 on 303-22-3 -- built over 25 years.

The Purple Raiders (14-0) have also won 10 national championships under Kehres.

"What Larry's done has definitely stood the test of time," Leipold said.

The similarities don't end there, either.

Mount Union leads the nation in total defense, allowing just 197 yards per game, and scoring defense, allowing 7.4 points per game. Whitewater isn't far behind, ranking seventh in total defense (241 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (11.1 points per game).

Both teams also earned their way to Salem behind backup quarterbacks.

The Warhawks lost their starter, Matt Blanchard, in their regular-season finale, and have used sophomore Lee Brekke throughout the playoffs. Blanchard, with 20 touchdowns and just one interception, could have played last week, but Leipold isn't sure he'll make the change.

"Lee Brekki has been a pleasant surprise," he said of the backup who had thrown for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in four playoff games.

The Warhawks also hope that tailback Levell Coppage, who has run for more than 1,800 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, will be available despite a hand injury.

Through the air, the quarterback looks most often toward Rusch, who had 87 receptions for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns, and Adam Brandes, whose 60 reception include 12 touchdowns.

The Purple Raiders, meanwhile, lost quarterback Neal Seamen in the opening series last week, and Kehres turned to sophomore Matt Piloto in their 34-14 victory against Bethel.

"He played well," Kehres said. "He didn't make any mistakes, big mistakes. He was a little jittery on his first few series, but he settled in, made some good throws and I think the team got excited, got behind him, and we were happy with how he played."

The Mount also has a prolific ground game led by Jeremy Murray, who has run for 1,591 yards and 20 touchdowns, and a favorite target for whoever is behind center in Cecil Shorts. He has 63 receptions for 1,106 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's missed three games.

Inexperience has been more of an issue for Mount Union this season after a mass exodus of seniors off last year's team, but Kehres said young players remember last year, too.

"I tried to get the guys not to jump ahead and talk about the Stagg Bowl," Kehres said of his team's motivation, "but in the back of their mind, certainly we lost last year, and when you lose in the Stagg Bowl or the playoffs, you want to get back the next year."

It's all the better, Shorts said, to find Wisconsin-Whitewater waiting for them again.

"When somebody beats you, you want revenge," he said.

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TWO FAMILIAR FOES MEET FOR NAIA TITLE:

My, this looks familiar.

Top-ranked Sioux Falls and No. 2 Carroll College have combined to win the last eight NAIA football championships, and one of them will be lifting the trophy again Saturday when they meet in the title game.

Not surprisingly, there's plenty of reverence on both sides.

"They're a team (very) similar to us," said Sioux Falls receiver Jon Ryan, recalling the teams meeting for the title in 2007 and '08. "They've got a lot of class."

Sioux Falls' first-year coach, Jed Stugart, said the history of the rivalry is what makes it special.

"We've got a lot of respect for their program," he said. "Our kids have always said that and they believe that and that's what's going to make for a great football game."

Sioux Falls, from South Dakota, has captured the last two championships and comes in with a 42-game winning streak. The Cougars (13-0) also won the title in 2006.

Carroll College (13-0), located in Helena, Mont., won four straight titles from 2002-05, and returned to the top in 2007 with a 17-9 victory over Sioux Falls. The Cougars haven't lost since.

While Sioux Falls has a new coach, Carroll coach Mike Van Diest said he doesn't notice much of a difference.

"You see a lot of the same things offensively and defensively, some of their sets," Van Diest said. "But it's the players, it's the same players. ... When you have that winning attitude, it carries over from year to year."

This year's game has been dubbed "Rematch on the Rivers: The Final Chapter," because Sioux Falls is leaving NAIA to join NCAA Division II next season. The Cougars can depart with the longest winning streak in NAIA history; they are currently tied with Texas A&I (now known as Texas A&M-Kingsville).

"We just enjoyed competing against a program like Sioux Falls," Van Diest said. "It's a great honor."

Stugart has talked to plenty of people about what it will be like to coach in the title game for the first time.

"I make a point of emphasis to not change much throughout the season and be consistent," he said. "I have relied heavily on our coaching staff and our players who have been through the success before at Sioux Falls. I am excited because this is my first national championship."

Linebacker Dom Studzinski leads a Sioux Falls defense that has allowed a nation-leading 200.4 yards per game and just 13 touchdowns. The Cougars have posted three shutouts and held nine teams under 10 points.

Studzinski is looking forward to matching up with Carroll's bruising ground game, led by senior John Camino (1,276 yards, 16 touchdowns) and sophomore Chance Demarais (779 yards, nine TDs). Throw senior quarterback Gary Wagner's 450 yards and three scores, and the Fighting Saints are running for an average of 237 yards per game.

"As a linebacker, you want to hit somebody," Studzinski said. "There's nothing better than having two running backs back there that want to come hit you, too. As a senior, I can't see anything else better than going out this way."

The teams have traveled thousands of miles to play for the title in northwest Georgia. They look forward to showing off the quality of NAIA football for fans in the Deep South.

"These guys can flat play football," Van Diest said. "When you watch how they play on Saturday, you watch the Cougars, how they play on film, you watch our guys, there's a reason they're here."