SALEM, Va. — Blake Jackson knew that, more than usual, Mary Hardin-Baylor’s fortunes were going to be in his control with the NCAA Division III championship at stake.
The dual-threat quarterback embraced it, running for 119 yards and a touchdown and leading the Crusaders to a 10-7 victory over UW-Oshkosh in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on Friday night for their first football national championship.
“I like the pressure. I like the challenge,” the senior said. “Thank you to the coaches for believing in me.”
Jackson carried 28 times for the Crusaders (15-0) and completed 16 of 27 passes for 171 yards with an interception. Mary Hardin-Baylor virtually ignored running back Markeith Miller, who arrived with nearly 1,500 yards rushing but gained just 11 on nine carries.
“We had trouble running the ball,” said coach Pete Fredenburg, who started the Crusaders’ program 19 years ago. “Blake took up the slack. We felt like he was going to have to be the catalyst for our offense.”
Jackson’s touchdown came on a 1-yard run with 3:16 left in the second quarter, and was the final score of the game.
“There was a ton of athletes out there tonight on both sides of the ball,” Titans coach Pat Cerroni said. “Great athletes, but No. 7 (Jackson) was exceptional.”
Dylan Hecker ran 2 yards to give the Titans (13-2) a 7-0 lead after just 6:22, but Oshkosh could never find that rhythm again. The Titans drove to the Crusaders’ 35 in the final minute, but Matt Cody intercepted Brett Kasper’s fourth-and-10 pass to clinch the victory.
“Don’t drop it,” Cody said he thought as the clinching play came spiraling toward him.
Kasper finished 20-for-33 for 185 yards with two interceptions. The Titans were held to 30 rushing yards on 29 attempts.
Oshkosh was playing in the championship game for the first time. Mary Hardin-Baylor lost in its only previous appearance in 2004.
Jackson and the offense get the credit for scoring points, but the Crusaders’ defense held the Titans scoreless after the offense turned it over three times — at midfield, at the Crusaders’ 27 and at the Titans’ 6 while looking for a cushion touchdown. The defense also stopped Oshkosh three times on fourth down — twice inside the Crusaders’ 30 and then on the game’s penultimate play.
The Titans run a modified 3-4 defense, with virtually no pass rush, and it backfired on them in the first quarter when the Crusaders used a 20-play, 66-yard drive to get their first points on a 22-yard field goal by John Mowery.
On the drive, Jackson ran around behind the line unchallenged, at times finding receivers downfield and other times running through gaps for yardage. The Crusaders converted their first five third downs on the drive before settling for the field goal.
Mowery’s field goal was the difference, and he seemed like a liability to the Crusaders coming in.
He’d made just 8 of 15 field goal tries on the season, with a long of 42, but was true when the 20-play drive stalled at the Titans’ 5.
Mowery later missed a 19-yard try, while Oshkosh, whose kicker Eli Wettstein was 16-for-22 on the season with a long of 50, was left on the sidelines for the Titans’ final play. A field goal try would have been a career-best 52-yarder.
Jaedon Johnson’s interception was Mary Hardin-Baylor’s 33rd of the season. Cody’s was their 34th. ... Hecker’s touchdown run was his 17th of the season, but he finished with just 29 yards on 13 carries. ... Miller’s first touch for the Crusaders came on their 22nd play from scrimmage, and he was stopped without a gain. ... In a game that tied for the second-lowest scoring in Stagg Bowl history, the Crusaders finished 11-for-18 on third down and the Titans were 8-for-17.