The last time a Mount Union football team lost their Ohio Athletic Conference opener, George H.W. Bush was president, gas was at 91 cents a gallon, and Notre Dame was the eventual national champion of the IA division.
That was in 1988. The loss was to Heidelberg, 24-14, in Larry Kehres’ third season as head coach. Baldwin Wallace and Wittenberg led the OAC and the Ithaca Bombers were the Division III national champions.
That was 297 conference games ago. Mount Union has not lost an OAC opener since.
The 2022 Purple Raiders earned 34 straight wins in the OAC’s opener on Saturday, beating visiting Marietta, 55-7, behind an offense that rushed for 652 yards and a defense that gave up yardage as begrudgingly as a junkyard dog drops a bone.
Senior quarterback Braxton Plunk, senior wide receiver Wayne Ruby Jr. and senior running back DeAndre Parker all had productive days and the defense, led by linebacker Mason McMillen, safety Jesse Vail and winger Eli Beers, held the Pioneers to 175 yards and nine first downs. .
Head coach Geoff Dartt gave a collective pat on the back and a group “attaboy” to the offensive line, particularly junior left tackle Ben Lilly, sophomore right guard Jarrett Burress, and second Aiden Cange and Davis Ward senior, who alternated at right tackle.
This group was primarily responsible for taking out Drake Neuberger, keeping Marietta’s two-time OAC Defensive Player of the Year out of Mount Union’s backfield and out of Plunk’s back.
Neuberger, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior winger from Norwalk, led the OAC in sacks last season and picked up where he left off with five sacks in the Pioneers’ season opener. He was credited with three solo tackles and perhaps more importantly, no sacks, although it looked like he was more active than that.
“He’s a great player, absolutely, but we’ve been watching him a lot all week and a great game plan,” said Lilly, a 6-4, 305 pounds from Wadsworth. “We were sort of geared towards his confinement. We couldn’t let him go because he’s an extremely talented player and we didn’t want him to gain momentum. No bag is a big goal.
Lilly said the effort was a group thing, with everyone along the line being involved.
“We mainly tried to slide our protection towards him,” he said. “We directed our protection towards him. I knew he was one of the best defensive end in the country, so my goal was to not drop a sack on him.
The line performance was not lost on Plunk, who had plenty of throwing time all day and completed 29 of 39 passes for a whopping 496 yards and six touchdowns, one shy of his career high.
“They were great,” he said. “They trained hard all week. I had plenty of time. I don’t think I was pressured at all.
Ruby, chosen as a preseason All-American by D3football.com, caught 10 passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. He landed a smooth over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone after getting behind Marietta’s secondary for a 31-yard touchdown that gave the Raiders a 21-7 lead after the first of seven. Successful PATs by Thomas Piccirillo.
Piccirillo also threw field goals for 21 and 20 yards.
Parker, who emerged last season as a two-way threat, caught five passes for 130 yards and had the Raiders’ first two scores. The Crystal River, Fla. elder caught a single pass on the flat and turned it into a 58-yard touchdown on Mount’s first possession and followed it up with a 38-yard touchdown after Plunk deftly tucked in rushed and saw Parker open along Marietta’s sideline.
Dartt, now 19-1 since taking over from Vince Kehres ahead of the 2020 season, was more than happy with his side’s protection.
“The offensive line, the right ends and the running backs,” he said, “We definitely had a protection plan for what they [Marietta] do, especially with number 51 [Neuberger]. It was awesome to see. Some of the things they do really focus on protection. I think there may have been one [quarterback] pressure and a blow at some point. But overall, there weren’t a lot of negative games. When we talk about offensive efficiency, that’s good.
McMillen, also a preseason All-American per D3football.com, led the Raiders with two solo tackles and six assists and Vail, a first-team All-OAC last year, followed with four. solos and three assists.
Senior Josh Jones had his third interception in two games against Marietta and helped make life aggravating for Marietta quarterback Connor Vierstra.
The win was Mount’s 43rd straight against Marietta and now leads the series, 52-8-1.
The Raiders play their first road game of the season on Saturday when they travel to New Concord to take on Muskingum (2-0, 1-0). The Muskies defeated Ferrum (31-3) and Capital (37-7).