The Setup: Denison (8-2) will face No. 1 Mount Union (10-0) in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Division III Football Championship. Denison is a co-champion of the North Coast Athletic Conference and received the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Mount Union is the champion of the Ohio Athletic Conference and received the OAC's automatic bid. This is Denison's second NCAA playoff appearance and the 30th for the Purple Raiders.
How to Watch: The gates to Mount Union Stadium will open 90 minutes prior to kickoff. Tickets will be available at the Mount Union box office, on gameday. Admission is $8. Mount Union is located in Alliance, Ohio, about 20 minutes northeast of Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If you can't make it to the game, Mount Union will offer a free live video broadcast and the Denison Sports Network will provide a live audio broadcast of the game. Joey Semel (play-by-play) and Patrick Mullinger (color commentary) will be on the call.
The Coaches: Denison head coach Jack Hatem is in his ninth year as the head coach of the Big Red. He has a career record of 56-34 (.622) which ranks third all-time in wins at Denison. He trails only Keith Piper (200 wins) and Walter Livingston (76 wins). In 2016, Hatem was named the NCAC Coach of the Year after leading DU to an 8-2 campaign. Over the last four seasons, Denison has gone 30-10. Prior to being named the head coach in 2010, Hatem spent the previous five seasons as an assistant coach at Denison. A two-time Ohio High School Football Coach of the Year, Hatem brought 25 years of coaching experience and 13 years as a head coach at the high school level to the Denison program. Vince Kehres is in his sixth season as the head coach at Mount Union. He boasts a sparkling record of 80-4 (.952) and two NCAA Division III National Championships.
About Denison: Denison University is a private, coeducational, and residential four-year liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio, about 30 mi east of Columbus. Founded in 1831, it is Ohio's second-oldest liberal arts college. Since the formation of the 10-team North Coast Athletics Conference in 1984, Denison has captured a conference record 16 All-Sports trophies in addition to their 142 total conference championships. The university is committed to a broad-based program of intercollegiate athletics, sponsoring 23 varsity sports -- 12 for women and 11 for men. Over the past decade, more than a two-thirds of these sports at Denison have been represented in the NCAA's national rankings, postseason tournaments or championship meets. Denison's swimming & diving program has won five NCAA Division III national championships and seven different programs have logged top-eight national finishes.
About Mount Union: The University of Mount Union, located in Alliance, Ohio, is a private Midwestern institution founded in 1846. The University offers a rigorous and relevant academic program that is grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Mount Union has an enrollment of 2,209 undergraduate students, divided approximately equally between men and women. Mount Union is seeking its 100th college football playoff victory on Saturday.
Have I seen you here before? Denison and Mount Union haven't met on the football field since 1989 but the two institutions do have some history together. In Denison's only other NCAA playoff appearance in 1985, the Big Red faced Mount Union who was also making their NCAA postseason debut. Mount Union won that game 35-3. In 1989, Denison got some revenge as they returned to Mount Union Stadium and defeated the Purple Raiders, 24-21. Mount Union has not lost a non-conference regular season home game since. This is the 30th meeting between Denison and Mount Union in a series that dates to 1915. Denison leads the series with a 19-9-1 record.
Lucky No. 7: Denison senior quarterback and All-American candidate Canaan Gebele has established himself as one of the all-time greats to compete for the Big Red. He is the third player in NCAC history to surpass 10,000 yards of total offense in his career. He is Denison's career leader in passing yards (7,540), completions (626), and touchdown passes (66). He ranks ninth in rushing yards (2,454) and is second in rushing touchdowns (38). Gebele has racked up 10,004 yards and is responsible for 106 TDs since 2015.
Breaking the Chains: Denison is the first NCAC institution other than Wittenberg and Wabash to compete in the NCAA playoffs since the College of Wooster in 2004.
How they got here: On Sept. 29, Denison trailed 11th ranked Wittenberg 35-10 at halftime. Things looked grim. The Big Red responded by outscoring the Tigers 28-3 in the second half to force overtime. It took four overtimes for Wittenberg to escape Piper Stadium with a 68-66 victory. The loss, while devastating at the time, seemed to pump new life in the Big Red's season. They returned the next week and posted the signature win of the Jack Hatem era, a 34-10 dismantling of No. 22 Wabash in which Denison led 34-0 until two late scores by the Little Giants in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Since then, DU has rattled off six-straight wins that also included a gutsy 20-12 road win over DePauw.
Champions Again: The 2018 season marks Denison's third North Coast Athletic Conference Championship. The previous conference crowns came in 1985 and 1986. From 1907 until 1983 Denison was a member of the Ohio Athletic Conference, the same conference in which Mount Union competes. Denison captured OAC championships in 1957, 1947, and 1914. Mount Union's first OAC title occurred in 1985.
American Made: Denison's roster is comprised of student-athletes from 26 different states, accurately representing Denison's diverse student body. The Big Red's successes on the football field have been mirrored in the admissions office as well. Applications to Denison have increased 64 percent over the past four years and 2018 marked the most selective year in Denison's history with an admission rate of 34 percent.
Reppin' Cap City: While Denison's reach is nationwide, they have fared well in Columbus, Ohio. Seven players on the Big Red's depth chart played high school football in the Columbus area: Jay Mills (Columbus Academy), Jordan Lobel (New Albany), Mitch Marston (Utica), Cody Farley (Johnstown), David Weimar (Pickerington Central), Michael Flanagan (Dublin Jerome), Ryan Hallinan (Westerville Central)
Growth Potential: When Jack Hatem took over the head coaching job in 2010, Denison had a roster of 77 players. That number has grown consistently to a program-high 116 players this season.
Mint Condition: Denison tailback Alex Minton won the NCAC rushing title by gaining 1,291 yards while averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Minton transferred to Denison from Division I Drake after the 2016 season. In two years with the Big Red he has totaled 2,292 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.
Iggy Edge Rush: Junior defensive end Nate Keirn, a Cleveland St. Ignatius product, leads the defense with 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles-for-loss. Keirn is the program's career leader in sacks with 24.5.
Like Grandfather, Like Grandson: Another Denison player with some lineage is sophomore linebacker, Andrew Smith. His grandfather, Marv Smith, played at Denison from 1954-57 and is fourth in rushing with 3,324 yards. He is the program's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 40. In 1976, Marv Smith was inducted into Denison's Varsity D Association Hall of Fame. Andrew has totaled 45 tackles and two sacks in his first year as a starter.
QB2: Gebele's backup is junior Brad Baldinger who has appeared in seven games and passed for 143 yards. Baldinger is also a member of the Denison baseball team. Last year Denison baseball set a new program record for wins (32) and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Baldinger's father, Gary, played six seasons in the NFL, mostly for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Homecoming: Two Denison offensive starters, Andrew Zellers (Hartville, Ohio/St. Thomas Aquinas) and C.J. Davis (Massillon, Ohio/Jackson) will be playing in front of plenty of family and friends in Alliance. Zellers is a three-year starter on the offensive line and Davis has totaled 48 receptions for 366 yards and eight TDs in his career.
Back to 1985: The movie Back to the Future was released in 1985 and that was also the year Denison and Mount Union met for the first time in the NCAA playoffs. The Big Red went 10-0 that season and gained national exposure for its usage of the archaic single-wing offense. Chris Spriggs (1,049 yards) led a Denison offense that rushed for 3,510 yards in '85. Mark Marston was a junior wingback on that squad. His son, Mitch Marston, is a junior wide receiver on the 2018 Big Red squad.
Purple Raiders at a glance: Mount Union is led on offense by junior quarterback D'Angelo Fulford. He leads the nation in passing efficiency (208.5) while passing for 2,290 yards and 32 touchdowns. Mount Union's defense plays a fast and swarming style of defense that has a knack for making big plays. The Purple Raiders lead the nation with 11 defensive touchdowns, conversely, opponents have totaled only 12 touchdowns against Mount Union this season.
Lexington Connection: Two Lexington high school classmates are making a major impact at Denison as sophomores. Cory Swartzmiller has started 10 games at cornerback and has 19 tackles and one interception. Hunter Biddle has been a weapon on jet sweeps and as a receiver out of the slot. He has 414 yards receiving and five touchdowns to go with 147 yards rushing.
Awards Season: Denison was the recipient of four D3football.com Team of the Week awards this season. The offensive line was honored for their play in the 68-66 loss to Wittenberg. Punter Calvin Montgomery won the award after his performance against DePauw. First-year safety Ryan Hallinan was tabbed after leading DU to a 27-10 win over Ohio Wesleyan and Canaan Gebele became the first QB from Denison to win the award after an eight-touchdown performance against Wooster.
Why Not: Senior wide receiver David Weimar leads all DU receivers with 654 yards and nine touchdowns. His 2,142 career receiving yards rank him fifth all-time. He needs one touchdown catch to move into a tie for second all-time. Weimar is a two-time Google Cloud Academic All-District selection.
In their spare time: Denison quarterback Canaan Gebele and offensive lineman Nick Morton also have a lacrosse background. The Maryland natives lend their knowledge as the voices of Denison men's and women's lacrosse in the spring.
Having a Record Year: Denison has set new single-season records for total offense (4,884), all-purpose yards (5,800), points (437), touchdowns (60), sacks (36.0) and their 75.0 tackles-for-loss is the second-most all-time.
Purple and Red Ties: Denison has one direct tie to Mount Union on its coaching staff. Defensive backs coach John Young played two seasons for the Purple Raiders and was a member of Mount Union's first national championship team in 1993. He is in his sixth season on the Denison coaching staff. Jack Hatem's son, A.J. Hatem is an assistant football coach at Ohio Northern. The Polar Bears and the Purple Raiders clash annually as members of the Ohio Athletic Conference. In an even more distant tie, former Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, who boasts the highest winning percentage in college football history (323-24-3 | .929), landed his first head coaching job at Johnstown-Monroe High School in nearby Johnstown, Ohio in 1973. Denison senior running back Cody Farley and Offensive Coordinator, Austin Holter were standouts at Johnstown-Monroe.