A haunting defeat
He just didn’t know how big.
Well, the impact of that excruciating 17-16 defeat—a game decided in the waning seconds on a two-point conversion by the Pointers—shows up this week. The fifth-seeded Warhawks, ranked No. 4 nationally by D3.football.com, will make their second cross-country trek of the season as they face top-seeded, unbeaten and sixth-ranked Willamette (Ore.) in the second round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs.
The defending national champions can only hope this trip to the Pacific Northwest proves to be as successful as their 60-7 victory over the University of Puget Sound on Sept. 27, a game played in Tacoma, Wash.
“That trip in September certainly pays some dividends,” Leipold said of his team’s preparation for its playoff excursion to Oregon.
Willamette defeated Puget Sound, 49-27, in a Northwest Conference game.
For historical reference, Whitewater defeated Linfield (Ore.), 44-41, in a 2005 quarterfinal playoff game played in McMinnville, Ore.
The Warhawks practiced Thursday morning in Whitewater, gathered for a post-workout Thanksgiving dinner and then bused to Madison where the team took a charter flight to Portland, Ore., a city about one hour from Willamette, which is in Salem.
Whitewater has a light workout scheduled for today. Temperatures in the 50s are forecast for Saturday’s game.
The Warhawks, still three victories away from a fourth straight trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, will have two main areas of emphasis as they gear up for the Bearcats.
The first priority will be the status of freshman tailback Levell Coppage, who suffered an ankle injury early in the third quarter of the Warhawks’ 37-7 playoff-opening victory over St. John’s last Saturday. Coppage leads the team with 1,420 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns.
But the Warhawks didn’t lose a step when backup Antwan Anderson answered the call against the Johnnies to the tune of 158 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. Anderson’s first score, a 43-yard jaunt, was a thing of beauty as he weaved his way through the St. John’s defense.
“Antwan Anderson really stepped up for us,” Leipold said. “When we recruited him we thought he had those kind of abilities. He has gained the confidence of the coaching staff.”
Anderson’s big game Saturday pushed his season totals to 577 yards on just 82 rushes (6.9 yards per carry).
Meanwhile, Coppage did not practice early this week and is doubtful for Saturday’s game.
Whitewater’s second priority Saturday will be bottling up the Bearcats’ big-play offense. Willamette averages more than seven yards per play. The Bearcats showed off their quick-strike ability in a 48-33 shootout victory over second-seeded Occidental in last Saturday’s playoff opener.
“Willamette is probably the most athletic team we’ve seen this year from their skill positions,” Leipold said. “They’re a big-play offense. The biggest thing going is that we play assignment-sound football.”
No player on the Willamette roster epitomizes the Bearcats’ game-breaking abilities more than senior flanker Merben Woo. The versatile 5-foot-9, 165-pounder torched Occidental for 103 rushing yards on eight carries, including a 51-yard TD run. He also caught five passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns of 71 and 56 yards.
Deon Horne, Willamette’s leading rusher, carried 11 times for 125 yards and two touchdowns on a day when the Bearcats amassed 245 yards rushing on just 27 attempts.
Offensively, the Bearcats try to keep opponents off balance with multiple formations and extensive pre-snap motion.
“We will have to deal with their misdirection,” Leipold said.
Defensively, Willamette uses three- and four-man fronts with Tampa-2 coverage in the secondary.
As defending national champions, Leipold knows his Warhawks are wearing targets on their backs every week.
“We know we’re going to get people’s best shot,” he said. “I’d like to think we have some of that (intimidation factor on our side) based on our success.”