Clash of the titans
With Mount Union (Ohio) College looking more powerful than ever this season, Saturday afternoon’s game between Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) and UW-Whitewater at Perkins Stadium could be looked at as a secondary title game.
Both the consensus No. 2-ranked Crusaders and the No. 3- or 4-ranked Warhawks will still have national title dreams, no matter what the outcome Saturday, but the battle between these two Division III powerhouses likely will establish which team could have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Whitewater still has to win the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title to qualify. But with a one-game lead on second-place Stevens Point and a two-game lead on third-place Eau Claire, and wins over both those teams, the Warhawks are in prime position to claim the automatic WIAC playoff bid.
So the 1 p.m. matchup between the Warhawks (6-1) and Crusaders (7-0) should be as big as any game these two teams will play this season—at least during the regular season.
Whitewater defeated Mary Hardin-Baylor, 7-3, in Belton, Texas, last season.
This time, the score could be 7-3 after the first two possessions.
“It’s going to be a tough task to repeat that performance,” Warhawk coach Lance Leipold said of last season’s defensive struggle.
Leipold wasn’t around last season when Neil Mrkvicka’s 94-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff proved to be the only points the Warhawks needed to win. The two teams combined to rush for 79 yards on 69 attempts.
That is about as likely to happen Saturday as a 95-degree day.
Mary Hardin-Baylor is 6-0 in the American Southwest Conference, where the Crusaders are averaging 57 points a game. MHB has not scored less than 47 points in any of its games.
Last week, in what was billed as the conference’s showdown, Mary Hardin-Baylor defeated Mississippi College, 69-30. The Crusaders’ Jarvis Thrasher gained 324 yards on just 12 carries, and Quincy Daniels added 199 yards on just eight carries.
The duo scored six touchdowns and averaged 26 yards a carry in the nation’s leading rushing offense.
Mississippi College entered that game with the No. 4-ranked rushing defense, but the Choctaws allowed 613 yards rushing.
The Crusader defense was on the field for 101 plays, which might benefit the Warhawks this week.
Thrasher, a senior, and Daniels, a sophomore, present a challenge that the Warhawk defense hasn’t faced, even against NCAA Division 2 St. Cloud State, which handed Whitewater its only loss of the season.
Thrasher (5-foot-8, 180) has rushed for 1,087 yards and has scored a school-record 16 TDs on the ground in the first seven games.
Daniels (5-8, 190) has 844 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Those are two impressive runners,” Leipold said. “We haven’t seen the type of speed these two gentlemen have since we played them a year ago.”
In addition, the Crusader offense features 6-7, 210-pound senior receiver Patrick Oliver, who has 16 catches for 357 yards and eight TDs.
Oliver could pose matchup problems for Warhawk senior cornerbacks Matt Blaziewske (5-11, 185) and Gabe Schultz (5-6, 178).
Last season, Warhawk defensive lineman Ryan Kleppe was a wrecking crew against the Crusaders. He had 10 total tackles, with 52 tackles for losses, and three sacks.
The Warhawks don’t have a dominant lineman like the All-American Kleppe, but the defense does rank 19th nationally against the rush.
“We’ve had a steady, collective performance,” Leipold said. “Our linemen are doing a good job.”
They will get the ultimate test Saturday.
e Warhawks likely will rely on tailback Justin Beaver and quarterback Danny Jones to help keep the Crusader offense off the field.
Beaver rushed 41 times for 232 yards in the Warhawks’ 31-14 win at Stevens Point last Saturday, pushing his career mark to 5,361 yards.
Jones completed 23 of 33 passes for 239 yards and four TDs and added 11 rushes for 39 yards. Beaver and Jones shared the WIAC Offensive Player of the Week honor.
Leipold hopes the strong game is an indication that Jones, a transfer from California Lutheran, is ready to roll in the Warhawk offense.
“We really challenged him last week,” Leipold said. “He rose to the occasion.”
The Warhawks figure to need that again against Mary Hardin-Baylor.