Warhawks rally to top North Central
The lofty rankings have definitely been validating.
And the current winning streak is historically good.
But for everything UW-Whitewater’s football team has accomplished in appearing in five straight Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowls—now one win away from a sixth—Saturday’s 20-10 win over North Central (Ill.) in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal game at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium in Naperville, Ill., was more indicative than anything of the Warhawks’ considerable ability.
The defending champion Warhawks, ranked No. 1 nationally, were on the road against a team that was rated four spots lower but was somehow seeded a spot higher in the postseason regional rankings.
“That’s a matter that needs to be addressed at a different time, I believe,” Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said after the game about the questionable seeding.
North Central’s defense, led by ferocious senior linebacker Matt Wenger, refused to let Whitewater grind out its customary hundreds of rushing yards. Whitewater sophomore quarterback Lee Brekke was starting just his third game, this one with more pressure than the first two combined, in relief of injured junior Matt Blanchard.
So with all that in mind, it probably wasn’t surprising that North Central had a 10-7 lead with the ball late in the third quarter—and that Whitewater’s 27-game win streak seemingly was in jeopardy.
And then the Warhawks forced a turnover. Then another. Then another.
By the time it was over, Whitewater (13-0) had gone on the road, taken the best punch a very good team had to offer and come out victorious for the 28th consecutive time—the longest active streak in any division of NCAA football.
“I’m extremely proud of this group, the way they battled, persevered through it, created turnovers in the second half,” Leipold said.
Whitewater, champion of the North Region, goes on the road again to face South Region champion Wesley (Del.) in a semifinal game next Saturday. Wesley (13-0) defeated Mary Hardin-Baylor of Texas, 19-9, in the quarterfinals Saturday.
“I actually like road games,” said Whitewater junior running back Levell Coppage, who ground out a tough 107 yards on 29 carries against North Central’s physical defense.
This road game, though, was nearly Whitewater’s last game of the season.
Nick Dace’s 32-yard field goal with 6:32 left in the third quarter gave North Central (12-1) a 10-7 lead, and the Cardinals took over again on their 4-yard line with 1:53 left in the quarter.
That’s when Whitewater turned the tide.
On third-and-4 from the 10, Spencer Stanek’s pass for tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz arrived at the same time as Whitewater linebacker Greg Arnold. Arnold and Fiedorowicz appeared to both tip the ball high in the air, and it fluttered right into the arms of defensive back Sam Overton, who returned it to the 19.
“They ran (the play) not exactly the way that we saw on film, but they ran something similar to what we expected they were going to run,” Arnold said. “I just kind of stepped in front of the ball and tipped it up.”
Four plays later, on the third play of the fourth quarter, Brekke—who threw for 113 yards with a touchdown and an interception—scored on a 5-yard bootleg, and Whitewater took the lead for good at 14-10.
On North Central’s next possession, Jake Holstein forced a fumble by Stanek that was recovered by Whitewater linebacker Luke Hibner at the North Central 39. Freshman kicker Eric Kindler then drilled a 27-yard field goal to give the Warhawks a 17-10 advantage with 4:07 left.
With the Cardinals still trailing by just one score, Hibner made the game’s biggest play.
On second-and-9 from his 45, Stanek’s pass was tipped at the line by Hibner, who corralled the ball in the air and rumbled to the North Central 3.
“I don’t know how these hands even touched the ball, but they did, and I just started running downfield,” a self-deprecating Hibner said.
“I thought I blacked out. I actually envisioned this at the hotel, and I (thought), ‘This will never, ever happen,’ but it happened. It was one of those plays that I’ll probably never make again.”
North Central held Whitewater out of the end zone on the ensuing series, but Kindler’s 19-yard field goal with 2:03 left sealed the win.
Kindler and junior punter Kris Rosholt, who downed two kicks inside the North Central 5, were instrumental in the win.
“The closer the two teams get, it’s going to come down to special-teams play and the turnover battle,” Leipold said.
And as usual, Whitewater came out on top.
NORTH CENTRAL 10
First downs 14 17
Rushing-yards 39-140 38-99
Yards passing 113 207
Passes 9-17-1 15-24-2
Punts-avg. 7-38 3-36.7
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 5-41 3-20
Time of poss. 27:23 32:37
UW-Whitewater 7 0 0 13—20
North Central 7 0 3 0—10
NC—Nick Kukuc, 1 run (Dace kick), 10:13. W—Adam Brandes, 10 pass from Lee Brekke (Eric Kindler kick), 8:37.
NC—FG, Dace, 6:32.
W—Brekke, 5 run (Kindler kick), 13:46. W—FG, Kindler, 27, 6:06. W—FG, Kindler, 19, 2:03.
RUSHING—Whitewater: Levell Coppage 29-107, Booker Stanley 4-20, Aaron Rusch 2-8, Lee Brekke 2-7. North Central: Jordan Tassio 12-44, Nick Kukuc 10-29, Spencer Stanek 15-24, Joe Antonacci 1-2.
PASSING—Whitewater: Lee Brekke 9-16-1-113, Aaron Rusch 0-1-0 0. North Central: Spencer Stanek 15-24-2-207.
RECEIVING—Whitewater: Adam Brandes 5-92, Aaron Rusch 2-9, Levell Coppage 1-9, John Novak 1-3. North Central: Steve Hlavac 7-130, Kyle Fiedorowicz 4-34, Joe Antonacci 2-18, Andy Stuursma 1-13, Tassio 1-12.