Mount Union overcame a series of mistakes and wasted opportunities Saturday to defeat visiting Wartburg, 34-31, in a Division III national semifinal game to advance to next week’s national championship game for the 22nd time.
The Raiders (14-0) will play either defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor or runner-up North Central in Annapolis on Friday night.
The second-ranked Raiders scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds left, in a game that will go down in Mount Union history.
A 3-yard run by sophomore Tyler Echeverry capped a 69-yard drive in 2:31 and averted what was a near-catastrophic second half in which the Raiders failed to capitalize on two incredible opportunities and committed several mistakes.
Echeverry’s touchdown, set up by a critical 27-yard reception by Edwin Reed, highlighted the winning drive and erased a deficit after Wartburg (13-1) had rallied from a 31-28 deficit when a wide-open Carter Henry took a 59-yarder. scoring pass from Nile McLaughlin with 3:06 left.
Wartburg, in the semifinals for the first time in school history, scored 17 points in the second half.
Quarterback Braxton Plunk completed 43-of-56 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns as the Knights stifled the Mount’s running game for most of the day. Mount Union squandered two big scoring opportunities in the second half, and it nearly ended its season.
First, Lance Mitchell returned the second-half kickoff 77 yards to the Wartburg 3-yard line, but Plunk was dropped for a 5-yard loss by Owen Grover and a 23-yard field goal was blocked by Drew Wyffels, who came in unblocked from the left page.
Later in the quarter, with the Raiders on top, 21-14, Von Factor had a strip sack on McLaughlin and Mason McMillen recovered the ball at the Wartburg 1-yard line.
The golden opportunity turned sour when Plunk tried to find Ruby in the corner of the end zone on first down, but Trent Roling wrestled the ball away for an interception.
Plunk and McLaughlin combined to complete 40 of 52 passes in the first half, which ended in a 14-14 tie. Plunk completed 29 of 35 throws for 251 yards and McLaughlin was successful on 11 of 17.
Wartburg trailed by seven points with about six minutes left in the first half when Owen Grover was credited with causing a fumble on a controversial call on a Plunk pass attempt. Plunk’s arm appeared to go forward as Grover hit him from behind and the ball came loose. The ball was covered by linebacker Nate Link at the Mount Union 14. Officials said the call would stand after a review.
Given the gift, the Knights scored on just two plays when McLaughlin moved left and found wide receiver Carter Henry from 14 yards out.
Mount Union scored on its first two possessions sandwiched around a Wartburg score. The Raiders needed nine plays and 3:32 to go 89 yards and score on a 32-yard pass from Plunk to Wayne Ruby. It was Ruby’s 28th TD reception of the season.
After Wartburg tied the game with an eight-play, 75-yard drive, the Raiders regained the lead when Plunk completed a 10-play, 71-yard drive by scrambling for the final 7 yards.
Management held up to the controversial call on the Plunk fumble.
The Raiders’ rushing game was ineffective in the first half as DeAndre Parker, who had rushed for 1,251 yards in the previous 13 games, was held to 3 yards on two carries. Plunk led with 18 yards on four attempts.
Wartburg didn’t fare much better as Hunter Clasen, who entered the game with 1,516 yards rushing, was held to 25 yards on nine carries.