Warhawks earn title

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Steve Hemphill/Special to the Gazette
Sunday, December 19, 2010
— How much thinking can a football player do in the midst of a long game-clinching running play?

Lavell Coppage says quite a bit, actually.

A year after leading UW-Whitewater to the NCAA Division III national championship with a three-touchdown effort, the junior running back topped himself here Saturday. He ran for a title-game record 299 yards and three more touchdowns as the Warhawks repeated as winners of the Stagg Bowl with a 31-21 victory over Mount Union in front of 4,598 fans at Salem Stadium.

And it was Coppage who clinched the victory for Whitewater (15-0) with a 75-yard TD run on a third-and-six play with 2:34 remaining and the Warhawks leading by just three points.

So what was the game’s Most Outstanding Player thinking?

“I was thinking (first), ‘am I going fast?’ Coppage said. “Two, ‘should I zig-zag?’ And three, ‘is there anyone behind me?’ ”

The touchdown finally gave some breathing room for the Whitewater defense, which forced five Mount Union turnovers, and for the second consecutive game did not allow any points in the second half.

“In the second half, that’s all we were thinking about was scoring points and giving our defense some fresh air,” Coppage said.

Shutting out the Purple Raiders was even more important because Whitewater’s offense also had its struggles. In the midst of 433 yards of total offense, the Warhawks did commit four turnovers.

Quarterback Lee Brekke, who again filled in for injured starter Matt Blanchard (broken thumb), threw three interceptions. But only one of those led to points for Mount Union.

“This game came down to turnovers,” Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said. “And we were able to capitalize on those game-changing events.”

Mount Union’s offense was held to just 45 yards rushing, which led the Purple Raiders to spend most of their time passing. They threw 51 times, and four of those were picked off—two of those by Janesville Parker High School graduate Matt McCulloch.

“They’re a good (defensive) team,” Mount Union standout receiver Cecil Shorts III said of the Warhawks. “Coming into the game, we expected their best. It might have been the best defense we played this year. They were good against the pass and made good tackles.”

Concentrating on Shorts was important for the Warhawks. Last season, Shorts caught 10 passes for 185 yards and scored two touchdowns. This year, he had a 58-yard TD catch midway through the third quarter, but his other six catches totaled just 42 yards.

The Warhawks also forced Shorts into a critical mistake when he took over at quarterback for two series in the fourth quarter. Shorts, running a Wildcat-style offense, appeared be breaking free for a long gain, but was stripped of the ball by Whitewater’s Steven McCollum, who then recovered the fumble on the Whitewater 45.

McCollum said Shorts had gotten past him, and when he made one last swipe in an attempt to slow Shorts down, he got the ball.

“They were moving the ball pretty well there,” McCollum said. “It was getting pretty difficult, but I think that play helped us.”

Coppage, who reached the 2,000-yard rushing mark for season late in the second quarter, provided the only points of the first quarter. His 54-yard scoring run stood out in a mistake-filled quarter.

Mount Union quarterback Matt Piloto, who was playing for injured starter Neal Seaman, got the Purple Raiders into Whitewater territory three times, but that resulted in no points. Whitewater’s defense twice stopped drives with interceptions—the first time by Ryan Wenkman, the second by McCulloch.

In between, Mount Union kicker Tyler Almeida missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt.

But then, a defensive play made on Coppage finally helped spark Mount Union’s offense in the second quarter.

Coppage broke free up the middle on a play similar to his first-quarter TD run, but he was stripped of the ball by Mount Union’s Nick Driskill. The loose ball was recovered by Charles Dieseul on the Warhawks’ 47, and the Purple Raiders were in business.

On the second play from scrimmage, Piloto got Mount Union’s first score by hitting Kyle Miller for a 39-yard touchdown pass. With 10:44 to play in the second quarter, the Raiders had their first points of the game, and Miller’s score was the start of a big run.

Mount Union got the ball back right away when Brekke’s pass on first down from the 30-yard line was picked off by Lambert Budzinski, who returned the interception to the Whitewater 4. The Raiders needed only two plays to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Running back Jeremy Murray scored on a 1-yard run. After Tyler Almeida’s extra point, Mount Union was up 14-10.

There was still more to cheer about for Purple Raider fans. A three-and-out by Whitewater led to a punt, which was followed by a four-play, 76-yard drive that was capped by a 58-yard TD pass from Piloto to Shorts with 6:50 to play in the half. The senior’s fifth-career Stagg Bowl touchdown gave Mount Union a 21-10 lead.

In a span of 3:54, the Purple Raiders had gone from trailing by their biggest deficit of the season—10 points—to leading the Warhawks by 11, which represented the most points Whitewater had trailed in 2010.

During Mount Union’s scoring flurry, the Raiders gained 120 yards on eight plays, and they scored three TDs in just 2:44.

Nearly as fast as Mount Union had struck, the Warhawks recovered and came back.

Brekke settled down and led Whitewater on a 65-yard drive that was capped by Coppage’s second touchdown run of the half to pull the Warhawks within 21-17 with 2:46 to play.

The Purple Raiders tried to make something happen in the final minutes of the half. Instead, three straight incompletions forced a punt and gave Whitewater one more first-half possession.

With 1:56 to play, Brekke and the Warhawks took possession on their 23 and moved down quickly. Brekke completed four of six passes for 79 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Huber with 1:01 to play that gave Whitewater the lead for good at 24-21.

And the Warhawks were on their way to another title.

Last updated: 3:47 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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