St. John's gives season a storybook ending
SALEM, Va. -- John Gagliardi's record-breaking season ended perfectly, too, with St. John's as the Division III national champion.
The Johnnies snapped Mount Union's NCAA-record 55-game winning streak with a 24-6 victory Saturday in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, giving their 77-year-old coach his first national championship since 1976.
"Maybe it's my year," Gagliardi said after winning his fourth national championship in 55 years as a coach, 51 at St. John's.
"You can't hardly beat it," he said. "The thing about these playoffs is only one team wins it all, and we've been losing a ton of times to the eventual champion. It's going to be kind of nice to see how this is."
Gagliardi passed Eddie Robinson as the career victories leader among college coaches earlier this season, and improved to 414-114-11 overall.
Mount Union (13-1) had won three consecutive Stagg Bowls and 109 of its last 110 games. But St. John's intercepted four passes, returning one 100 yards for a score, and got big contributions from most valuable player Blake Elliott to deprive Purple Raiders of an eighth national title in 11 years.
"They've been the king of the hill for a long time," Elliott said after rushing for 110 yards, including a 51-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. "They've been pushing teams off and throwing teams off, but we got them today.
"All it took was 52 guys believing."
Elliott, the winner of the Gagliardi Trophy as the best player in Division III, also caught five passes for 51 yards and had a 27-yard kickoff return despite playing with a tight hamstring injured last week.
His TD run gave St. John's a 17-6 lead with 13:34 left. The Johnnies all but clinched the victory less than five minutes later on Mike Zauhar's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, the game's final score.
"The play of their defense was the key," Mount Union coach Larry Kehres said. "I think they really had control of us most of the time."
Mount Union gained 286 yards, just over half its 542-yard average, and was stopped twice from the 1 right before Zauhar's interception.
St. John's, forcing Mount Union to play from behind in the second half for only the third time in its last 56 games, had three of its four interceptions in the second half to cap it's perfect season at 14-0.
"Our defense is always trying to make a statement," linebacker Cameron McCambridge said. "We often get overshadowed, but there was definitely something to prove. Today we proved Mount Union is not invincible."
The crowd of 5,073 on a frigid day at Salem Stadium including three chartered planes of fans from Minnesota. St. John's was founded in Collegeville, Minn., by Benedictine monks in 1857.
By halftime, they saw the trip could prove most memorable.
St. John's, which lost 10-7 to Mount Union in the 2000 Stagg Bowl, took a 7-6 lead on the last play of the first half when Jake Theis took a lateral from Ryan Keating down the left sideline for a 14-yard score, breaking several tackles and diving to get the ball into the end zone.
"It showed them that we could score on them," Keating said.
Kehres, whose team had only trailed at halftime twice in its 55-game winning streak, downplayed the play's affect on the Purple Raiders. "I don't think it broke our spirit, but I'm sure it lifted theirs," he said.
The Johnnies became the first team to score a second-quarter touchdown this season against Mount Union, which had outscored its opponents 249-6.
Brandon Keller's 22-yard field goal in the third quarter pushed the lead to 10-6, and Elliott and Zauhar provided the closing clinchers.
The Purple Raiders, held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time this season, broke through on the first play of the second quarter.
Rick Ciccone's 1-yard run capped a 74-yard drive highlighted three plays earlier by Burghardt's 16-yard pass to John Healy over the middle on third-and-15 from the Johnnies 19. The extra point was blocked.
Mount Union's only other threat ended with Zauhar's interception.
Gagliardi said afterward that he's not ready to ride off into the sunset just yet -- "I don't even know where the sunset is," he said -- and that his latest championship ranks among the best of his career.
"Right up there with when I win the lottery," he said.