All about respect
Does familiarity really breed contempt?
Not in the case of the UW-Whitewater and Mary Hardin-Baylor football teams. The fifth-ranked Warhawks (12-1) travel to Belton, Texas, for an NCAA Division III football playoff game Saturday against the fourth-ranked Crusaders (12-1).
The teams will play for the fourth time in three seasons—and the second straight year with a berth in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on the line.
The budding rivals—separated by 1,133 miles, according to MapQuest.com—however, have developed a mutual respect for each other, not mutual enmity. Blood feud? Not even remotely close.
“We certainly know their tradition and history. We’re 0-3 against those guys,” said MHB’s 11th-year coach Pete Fredenburg, who has a 99-28 career record as the only coach in the history of the program. “We’re just excited about getting to play them here, and I know our guys are excited about the opportunity to play Whitewater again.
“It is a status check for our program. We have tremendous respect for the job that they do, and we know we’ll be in a hard-fought game. We have a tremendous relationship with (Whitewater head coach) Lance (Leipold) and the coaches up there.
“Even though we’ve lost three times to them, it has helped us as a football program to play a team of their caliber. We want to turn the tide.
“Our players are pleased with this matchup. It wasn’t a cockiness. They know if we’re going to reach the goals we want to reach, we have to beat a team like Whitewater.”
Leipold shares Fredenburg’s sentiments.
“(Mary Hardin-Baylor) is the premier Division III school in the southern part of the country,” Leipold said. “When I took this job, that was a program our coaches who stayed here talked about. It’s the kind of program we aspired to do some things like. We have mutual respect for them.”
And a lot in common.
In the last five years, MHB ranks third out of 240 Division III football teams with 55 victories. The Warhawks, 15-2 in playoff games the last four seasons, rank second with 61 wins during that span and are 54-4 the last four seasons. Mount Union is 68-3 during the same time frame.
A bit of history is stacked against the Crusaders. No South Region team has ever won the Stagg Bowl, and the region has been represented in the title game just seven times since the inaugural championship contest in 1973.
One thing is certain: the folks in central Texas certainly have cranked up the hype meter for Saturday’s game, calling it the biggest home contest in school history. It’s probably the second-biggest game ever for the Crusaders, who lost to Linfield (Ore.) in the 2004 Stagg Bowl. MHB, coincidentally, beat Mount Union that year in the semifinals.
Of the four teams to reach last year’s Division III semifinals, three are back, with Wheaton (Ill.) replacing Bethel (Minn.) as the sacrificial lamb in Mount Union’s half of the bracket.
The Crusaders average 41 points per game while the Warhawks score at a 35-point clip. But defenses will probably rule the day.
MHB allows just 13.7 points a game to 12.2 for the Warhawks. Both teams surrender less than 81 yards rushing a game and less than 2.7 yards per carry. Whitewater is plus-12 in turnover margin to plus-10 for MHB.
For the Warhawk defense, the challenge will be to contain MHB quarterback Josh Saenz. He leads the Crusaders’ double-option offense in rushing (742 yards, 10 TDs) and passing (65 of 128, 303 yards, 15 TDs, four interceptions). Bryson Tucker (675 yards), Matt Hurst (558) and Roger Sanchez (534) all complement Saenz on a team that has rushed for 3,536 yards on 5.2 yards per carry.
The Crusaders’ leading receiver, Pi’Dadro Davis has just 22 catches, but is a long-range weapon who averages 29.4 yards per catch.
“(Saenz) seems to be a little better thrower than what was there last year,” Leipold said. “He has balanced them out a little bit. People have tried to make their quarterback beat ’em, and he has. They’re rotating guys in the backfield, but Tucker seems to get the most snaps.”
Saenz actually has a team-high 131 carries to Tucker’s 111.
The Warhawks, meanwhile, will almost certainly be without freshman tailback Levell Coppage, who is still nursing a leg injury. Coppage has rushed for 1,375 yards and 20 touchdowns, but hasn’t played since being knocked out of the Warhawks’ playoff-opening victory over St. John’s (Minn.).
Antwan Anderson, Coppage’s backup, has been a playoff revelation. He has pushed his season rushing total to 986 yards and 10 scores. Anderson has gained 689 yards and scored six touchdowns on 85 playoff carries.
“The challenge for us is to travel long distance again,” Leipold said. “This has been a long season.”
The Warhawks have already made long treks to Washington and Oregon this season. Now it’s off to the Lone Star State.
Another offensive challenge for the Warhawks will be to protect quarterback Jeff Donovan, who was sacked six times in last week’s quarterfinal victory over Wartburg.
“(MHB) has the most athletic and most physical defense we’ll see,” Leipold said. “The have two good tackles. The inside linebackers are active and can run. We’ve struggled at times running against this team. Their free safety is a run stopper.”
That free safety would be Derrick Williams, who has a team-high fiveinterceptions, ranks second on the team with 86 total tackles and has two fumble recoveries.
So how do you compare two teams from two different regions of the country?
“You look at the points they’ve allowed,” Leipold said. “That’s very impressive.”
Fredenburg has another measuring stick.
“I think past meetings are the only concrete way to judge teams,” he said.
We’ll find out Saturday.