ALLENTOWN, PA - What happens when an elite offense meets an elite defense? In this case, the defense prevailed hands down.
The fourth-ranked Muhlenberg football team defeated sixth-ranked Salisbury, 24-8, to advance to the NCAA Division III semifinals for the first time in program history.
Michael Norton, Class of 2023, of Sandwich (02563) is a member of Muhlenberg's football team.
Muhlenberg will host the semifinal game in the NCAA Division III football playoffs against North Central on Saturday, December 14, at noon. The game will be live-streamed on ESPN3.
Muhlenberg is the only undefeated team left in the Division III playoffs (Middlebury ended its season undefeated but does not participate in the playoffs). This year's football team joins 1995 men's soccer as the only Muhlenberg squads to make a Division III "Final Four.".
Going against an offense that scored 145 points in its first two playoff wins, the Mules allowed only 176 total yards and recorded five sacks. Muhlenberg held the Sea Gulls (11-1) well below their nationally ranked averages in points (8 vs. 51.1) and rushing yards (127 vs. 343.0). Salisbury entered the game second in Division III in passing efficiency but completed only four of 17 passes for 49 yards.
The Mules' bid for a third consecutive playoff shutout ended on a touchdown with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter, but Salisbury did not come close to scoring again. Muhlenberg held its sixth straight road opponent to single digits in points.
Senior Frankie Feaster notched half of Muhlenberg's sacks, and senior Dante Lonardo and sophomore Quentin Ogren also recorded solo sacks. Juniors Daymon Fleming (safety) and Pat Palmer (linebacker) each recorded a pair of tackles for loss, and sophomore John Washington tied a school record with four pass breakups.
Also contributing to the defensive effort was an offense that got up early, controlled the clock (winning time of possession 32:06-27:54) and kept the Sea Gulls' triple-option attack out of its comfort zone.
Salisbury moved the ball well on its first drive, but on second down from the Muhlenberg 11, a fumbled pitch was recovered by junior Spencer Kirin. The offense capitalized at the other end with senior Max Kirin, Spencer's brother, who was wide open to catch a 23-yard touchdown pass from junior Michael Hnatkowsky for the first points of the game.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Mules needed only seven plays to double their lead. Kirin caught a 28-yard pass on third-and-9 to extend the drive and a 9-yard pass to cap it with his second touchdown of the game.
Washington broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone to end Salisbury's best scoring chance of the second quarter, and 10 plays later senior Todd Spirt booted a 34-yard field goal, tying the school record for career three-pointers (31).
Muhlenberg's first drive of the second half was its longest, a 14-play, 80-yard march that took 5:40 off the clock and resulted in Hnatkowsky's third touchdown pass, 22 yards to junior Mitch Daniel.
Hnatkowsky finished 24-of-38 for 264 yards, breaking his own school record for passing yards in a season. The three TD passes gave him 96 for his career - the most by any active junior in all four NCAA divisions.
Salisbury took possession with 4:11 to play needing two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, but senior Joseph O'Hagan ended those hopes with his fourth interception of the season. On the next play from scrimmage, senior Mark Riggio ran 43 yards for the icing on the cake. The Mules wrapped up their school-record 13th win of the season by taking a knee four times.
This is the second straight year the Centennial Conference has sent a team to the Division III football semifinals.
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences as well as selected pre-professional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health. The College is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports.