They're back: Warhawks advance to face Mount Union in Stagg Bowl
Special to The Gazette
BELTON, Texas--After one season on the outside looking in, the UW-Whitewater Warhawks have rebounded all the way back to the Stagg Bowl.
The Warhawks scored 16 straight points and made it hold up for a 16-15 victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor in an NCAA Division III semifinal Saturday afternoon at Crusader Stadium.
No. 5 Whitewater (14-0) will face No. 1 Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va., on Friday in hopes of capturing its fifth national title in the last seven years. No. 2 UMHB finishes the season at 13-1.
“This is very fulfilling,” Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said. “The reason for that is we found out that sometimes these things have to be earned. We didn’t earn it last year, and we just went back to work.”
It simply became a matter of climbing back in the game after spotting the Crusaders the first 12 points in the first half.
“We just had to settle in on some things, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Leipold said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with a group, because there’s not a lot of panic there. We didn’t act like our backs were to the wall. This team may be the most battle-tested in 13 or 14 games since I’ve been here.”
The Warhawks’ comeback began in earnest late in the first half when they put together a 70-yard touchdown drive in eight plays. A 30-yard strike from Matt Behrendt to Jake Kumerow on third down sparked the march that ended with Jordan Ratliffe rumbling in from the 3. The Warhawks trailed 12-7 with less than three minutes left in the half.
Behrendt was remarkably efficient, going 21 of 29 through the air with no interceptions, and the Warhawks were 10-for-18 on third-down conversions.
“We feel like if we don’t turn the ball over we are going to win with the defense we’ve got,” said Behrendt, who has thrown just one interception in 432 attempts this season.
Whitewater had another scoring opportunity at the end of the half, but Eric Kindler’s 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Whitewater took the lead for good at the end of its first possession of the second half. The Warhawks needed 13 plays to go 59 yards, converting three third-down attempts along the way.
Ratliffe scored for a second time by slipping in from the 5. Behrendt was unable to get off a pass for the two-point conversion, leaving the score at 13-12 at the 6:57 mark of the third quarter.
Ratliffe banged his way to an even 100 yards on 28 carries.
“We expected it to be a physical game,” Ratliffe said. “Our coaches told us we would have to have yardage after contact.”
Kindler booted a 31-yard field goal just before the end of the third quarter to give the Warhawks a 16-12 margin.
It then became a test of will for the Warhawks’ defense as Mary Hardin-Baylor began to get its offense back in gear.
Safety Ryan Winske came up with an interception inside the Whitewater 30 to turn away one potential scoring drive from the Crusaders.
Later, a 42-yard punt return by Cody Jones put the Crusaders at the Whitewater 20. On third-and-goal from the 4, Zach Anderson found a wide-open Kolby Kelley in the end zone on a bootleg, but Kelley dropped the otherwise sure touchdown.
The Crusaders elected to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Chad Peevey to move within one point, 16-15, with 3:29 to play, hoping to get the ball back soon.
“I just felt like if we came away with nothing there, that’s the ballgame,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “Certainly, we want to go for it. But we had a couple of timeouts and I felt like we had time to score again.
They wound up with just one second to work with.
UMHB burned its final two timeouts, but the Warhawks converted a third-and-6 with Behrendt hitting Derric Junakin on an 18-yard pass off a bootleg.
Whitewater was forced to punt with eight seconds left. Kindler’s punt trickled toward the sideline as time ran out. After a four-minute review, officials determined that one second be put on the clock with the ball at the UMHB 36.
That led to a comical series of laterals that went nowhere before the game finally ended.
The Crusaders took charge early by driving 55 yards in eight plays on their first possession, which culminated in a 30-yard field goal by Peevey.
UMHB added two more points when a shotgun snap from center went through the hands of wide receiver Steve Morris, who lined up at quarterback, and into the end zone for a safety and a 5-0 advantage.
The Crusaders were unable to cash in on the short field following the safety, as Warhawk junior cornerback Brady Grayvold picked off an Anderson pass at the Whitewater 13. It was Grayvold’s school-record-tying eighth interception of the season.
UMHB’s only touchdown came on the 10th play of a 70-yard drive, with fullback Elijah Hudson finding a crease to go 10 yards for the score and a 12-0 lead with 5:47 left in the half.