During Monday’s national teleconference promoting tonight’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl — which stages the Division III football national championship game between Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater — a reporter asked Purple Raiders coach Vince Kehres about junior quarterback and Westlake native Kevin Burke.
The reporter suggested that Burke hadn’t lost a game that he started at quarterback since he was in eighth grade … and Kehres didn’t disagree.
Such is the rapidly growing legend of Burke, the second-year starting quarterback for Mount Union who led his team to a 28-10 win over St. Thomas (Minn.) in last year’s Stagg Bowl after three consecutive defeats and has his school poised for a possible second straight national title — 12th overall — in Salem, Va. Tonight’s game will be televised on ESPNU, and starts at 7 o’clock.
Burke laughed when a reporter brought up the question to him this week.
“My junior year in high school, we went 4-6,” Burke said. “Since then, I’ve been able to win quite a few games. I’ve lost a few games before, but it’s not a good feeling and I don’t like to lose.”
Burke led St. Edward to the 2010 Division I state championship by going 15-0 as a starter, and has gone 29-0 since taking the starting quarterback job as a sophomore at Mount Union.
“I don’t necessarily think any success or failures at St. Ed’s transitioned to Mount Union,” Burke said. “But both programs are pretty gritty — no bells and whistles, just hard-nosed football. As far as my expectations went, I knew Mount Union was a Division III powerhouse and you have high expectations from the get-go. For me, I just know I had to improve every single week if I was going to make an impact and be a part of this continued success.”
Along with his uncanny ability to win, Kehres — in his first year as head coach after succeeding his legendary father, Larry Kehres — pointed to Burke’s demeanor as one of the things that has allowed him to become a successful collegiate quarterback.
“You feel a sense of calm with him as quarterback,” Kehres said. “He’s extremely poised. He has confidence. He has played in big games. He’s played in tough situations. He has not gotten rattled in those tough situations and that started before he got to Mount Union.
“He came here with those intangibles and those have only blossomed since he’s come here. He gives me a lot of confidence. He gives our coaching staff a lot of confidence and his teammates a lot of confidence. Whatever it is, sometimes the quarterback has it or doesn’t. Kevin definitely has it.”
That it was on display last weekend. On a snow-covered field and with his Raiders trailing 40-35 with 1:35 remaining against North Central (Ill.), Burke calmly drove his team 65 yards in just three plays. His 26-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Mike Collichio with 1:07 remaining gave Mount Union a wild 41-40 victory and its ninth straight berth in the Stagg Bowl.
Remarkably, not only was the touchdown pass Burke’s first of the game, but it was also both Collichio’s first reception of the game and the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
“I think the difference this year would be instead of getting himself caught up and fitting in with veteran players, now his role is to catch up a lot of new starters, a lot of guys who haven’t played a great deal,” Kehres said. “He started 15 (collegiate) football games prior to this year. Being patient and being encouraging to the guys is a big part of that development process. He’s really shown outstanding leadership.
“I think I’ve gotten to the point where his poise helps me. It gives me a lot of confidence. It helps me make decisions sometimes that are tough to make. I know he’s going to be poised. I know he’s fine with having to make plays under pressure situations.”
Burke has proved himself to be a true dual-threat quarterback this season. He’s completed 212 of 337 passes (62.9 percent) for 3,514 yards and 44 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He’s also rushed for 1,035 yards on 183 carries (5.7 yards per carry) with a team-best 13 touchdowns, which breaks the record he set last year for most rushing yards by a quarterback in school history.
In the four postseason games, he’s completed 61 of 101 passes for 967 yards and 13 touchdowns with two interceptions. He’s also rushed 73 times for 309 yards (4.2 ypc) with five touchdowns. Last week, he gained 131 of those yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns and a 2-point conversion in the wild win.
“Actually, when I started playing football way back when, I was a running back,” Burke said. “I’ve always had kind of a knack for knowing when to run. Being able to use my feet has always been a part of my game, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
Burke said his poise comes from his upbringing.
“Before I was even introduced to football, I was raised to carry myself with poise,” Burke said. “It came naturally through my parents to stay calm under pressure and execute and don’t overthink things and do what it is you have to do. We have great players and I don’t need to coax them or do anything special with them. They know how to play on their own.
“Being calm and poised helps them out a bit. They’re great players that can get it done on their own. But when situations come down to the wire, it reassures them that their quarterback is poised and calm and has confidence that we have to execute on every play. I just try to get the best out of them on every play, regardless of the situation.”
As a sophomore, Burke was 249-for-359 passing for 3,772 yards, with 138 carries for 776 yards and nine touchdowns.
“If (Burke) wins the national player of the year award, it will be much deserved,” Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said. “He’s a very talented young man. He can run, he can throw, he can do a lot of things. He’s a confident leader and gets the absolute most out of his offense. He’s going to be a big test for our defense and he definitely makes things go for them. That’s hard to prepare for. He’s a guy that can keep plays alive, and I’ve been extremely impressed with him on film.”
To say Burke is excited to get the chance to play in a second straight Stagg Bowl and the chance to avenge three straight Stagg Bowl losses to Whitewater from 2009-11, would be an understatement.
“I don’t think words can do it justice,” Burke said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity and we’re ready to get rolling here. Whitewater’s a great team, but that doesn’t change much for us. We’ll prepare as normal as we would any other team. We’re going to stick to our routine. It should be a lot of fun (tonight).
“I’d say that we’re a fun team to watch. We’re explosive. We have young, gritty guys who love to play football. If you haven’t seen us play yet and you’re from the Cleveland area, I think you’ll enjoy what you see (tonight).”