Road rage? Warhawks accept underdog role
Lance Leipold did not have to spend much time working on his motivational speech for his UW-Whitewater football team this week.
The NCAA Division III football playoff seeding committee provided most of his ammunition for him three weeks ago.
The undefeated defending national champions will board a bus this afternoon for its trip to Naperville, Ill. On Saturday, the Warhawks play the West Regional No. 1 seed North Central in a quarterfinal game.
Whitewater, which has won two of the last three national championships and played in the last five national championship games, did not plan on taking a bus trip as the lower-seeded team for a quarterfinal game when the regular-season ended.
The steam coming from the Warhawk buses Friday afternoon won’t be caused by the cold weather conditions.
Leipold said when the seedings came out that the squad was “shocked” and “in disbelief” with the No. 2 seed.
He did not want to revisit the situation when asked about it Wednesday.
“All I know is we have to get on the bus on Friday,” Leipold said. “We’ve been sent on the road before.”
The last playoff road game the Warhawks had to play was Dec. 13, 2008, when the team traveled to Belton, Texas to play Mary Hardin Baylor in a semifinal game. The Warhawks won, 39-13, to advance to the title game against Mount Union.
All four playoff games leading up to last year’s title game were at Perkins Stadium, and the Warhawks’ first two playoff games this season were at Perkins.
“By the seeding, we’re the underdog,” Leipold said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to maybe play a little looser. By the seeding, we’re not expected to win this football game.”
The Warhawks will have a challenge against the undefeated Cardinals, who won the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title for a fifth straight season.
The closest game the Cardinals had this season was against UW-Eau Claire. In the third game of the season, the Blugolds traveled to Naperville and lost, 20-6.
The Warhawks defeated Eau Claire, 45-0, on the Blugolds’ field three weeks later.
This is the first time North Central has advanced to the third round of the playoffs. The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season, but were eliminated in the second round the three previous seasons. In 2007, Whitewater beat North Central, 59-28, in the second round.
The Cardinals should challenge the Warhawks defensively. North Central has allowed an average of just eight points and 62 yards rushing a game.
“They have the quickest defense we’ve seen all year,” Leipold said.
Middle linebacker Matt Wenger leads the defense. The 6-foot, 225-pound senior is in his fifth season after missing last year with a knee injury. Wenger has 61 solo and 46 assisted tackles, with 10 tackles for losses. He also has a sack, forced one fumble and recovered another.
The Cardinal offense averages 40 points a game. Jordan Tassio (873 yards, 9 TDs) and Nick Kukuc (770, 12) led the rushing attack. Brad Crackel and Spencer Stanek have combined to throw 25 touchdown passes.
Leipold said the North Central offense can attack in multiple ways.
“They incorporate several option schemes,” Leipold said. “If you can’t stop the run, you face a very long day.”
The Warhawks likely will have regular-season starter Matt Blanchard back at quarterback. Lee Brekke directed the first two Warhawk playoff victories after Blanchard suffered a sprained thumb.
“We feel good about how he is coming along,” Leipold said of Blanchard.
North Central should see a good dose of Levell Coppage. The junior tailback rushed for 300 yards in last week’s 45-31 victory over Trine. He has 1,555 yards rushing and has scored 20 touchdowns, running his career totals to 5,123 and 76.