Despite early lead & big plays, St. Thomas falls to Mount Union in Stagg Bowl

Despite early lead & big plays, St. Thomas falls to Mount Union in Stagg Bowl

SALEM, Va. -- The University of St. Thomas jumped out to 14-0 and 21-14 leads in Friday's Stagg Bowl, the NCAA Division III national championship game. However, Mount Union had an answer time and time again, as the Purple Raiders pulled ahead and then pulled away from the Tommies for a 49-35 win and their 12th national championship.

The 2015 Stagg Bowl was a rematch of the 2012 title game, though this time UST hoped for a different result after losing 28-10 three years ago. There were definitely times Friday when it looked like the Tommies may reverse their fortune and capture the program's first national championship, especially on a trio of highlight-reel touchdowns that were all worth of the game's ESPNU national television audience.

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The first gave St. Thomas a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but it took a second look to put the points on the board. Tommie tight end Charlie Dowdle settled under a perfect pass from John Gould, but a bobble on the catch resulted in a ruling of incomplete on the field. However, instant replay confirmed that Dowdle secured the ball with a foot still in bounds before going out the back of the end zone, and the spectacular catch gave UST the game's first points with 10 minutes to play.

On the final play of the first quarter, St. Thomas snuffed out a fake punt to get great field position, and used eight-straight runs to find the end zone again with Jordan Roberts plunging in from a yard out on fourth-and-one to make it 14-0 Tommies. However, Mount Union responded with a big answer, as the Purple Raiders scored pair of touchdowns in a 2:10 span, and the first half ended in a 14-14 tie.

The Tommies took the second-half kickoff and, on fourth-and-two, Gould threw a perfect pass deep downfield to Nick Waldvogel for a 58-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead. Mount Union responded with a big play of its own - a 63-yard pass - as part of a four-play scoring drive to knot things back up at 21-21, then the Purple Raiders capitalized on a St. Thomas fumble to take their first lead , 28-21, with 9:47 left in the third. After UST went three-and-out, Mount Union drove for another quick score and a 35-21 lead.

That's when a heads-up play and a fortunate bounce gave St. Thomas new life. Waldvogel took a reverse and cut upfield, but was hit and fumbled the ball. However, Gould was trailing the play and the ball bounced right up into his arms, and the Tommie quarterback raced for a spectacular, improbable 55-yard touchdown to make it a one-score game, 35-28.

Using the momentum, the Tommie defense got a three-and-out and gave the offense great field position at the Mount Union 42-yard-line. UST drove to the 30 and tried to keep the drive alive with a fake field goal, but the Purple Raiders stopped the trick play short of the first down and it remained a one-score game heading into the fourth quarter.

Mount Union started the final quarter with a touchdown drive, then forced a UST three-and-out and scored again five plays later to stretch the lead to 49-28 with 8:40 left in the game.

However, St. Thomas wasn't ready to concede the championship, as it responded with 58-yard kick return by Jack Gilliland and a seven-play, 40-yard scoring drive that ended with another Roberts rushing touchdown to make it 49-35. The Tommies appeared to make things even more interesting when they recovered a well-designed onside kick - Paul Graupner kicked the ball straight ahead and scooped it up after it went 10 yards - but Gould threw an interception on the first play of the drive and Mount Union was able to churn up the rest of the clock to close out a spectacular championship game that featured a total of 84 points.

St. Thomas' stars all played well on the big stage, led by Roberts who finished the season with 34 rushing touchdowns to lead all NCAA Divisions in that category. He also surpassed the 2,000-yard barrier for the season with 135 yards on 30 carries. Waldvogel had four catches for 78 yards and a score and four carries for 24 yards. Dowdle had three catches for 31 yards and a touchdown, and Gould was 8-for-22 for 123 yards and two scores, and he added 41 yards on the ground.

Mount Union's Logan Nemeth had 222 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, and quarterback Taurice Scott was 12-for-19 passing for 201 yards and three scores, and he added a rushing touchdown as well. Roman Namdar led the Purple Raiders' receiving corps with five catches for 123 yards  and a touchdown.

St. Thomas finishes its remarkable season with a 14-1 record, and its second NCAA runner-up finish in four years. The Tommies went 8-0 in conference play to win the 2015 MIAC title, and they were a perfect 10-0 in the regular season and won all four of its prior NCAA Playoff games by double digits to earn the trip to the Stagg Bowl.

In addition to the live television broadcast by ESPNU and online broadcast by the Watch ESPN app, the game also enjoyed a live audio broadcast on the radio and online by 104.1 Jack FM. The postgame awards ceremony was carried live by ESPN3.

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