Blanchard aims to beat Mount Union and make his brother cringe (just a bit)

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
— Purple is the dominant color in Steve and Peggy Blanchard’s house in Lake Zurich, Ill.

For four seasons from 2004-2007, the couple put on their Mount Union purple gear and made the 7½-hour trip each Saturday to Alliance in eastern Ohio to watch their eldest son, Derek, play on the offensive line for the Purple Raiders.

For the past three football seasons, they have donned UW-Whitewater purple and headed north to watch their other son, Matt, play for the Warhawks.

On Friday night, all of the Blanchards will be in Salem, Va., to watch Matt and the rest of the Warhawks play Mount Union for the NCAA Division III national title.

Matt is one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy—the Division III Heisman— that will be awarded Wednesday, so it is a hectic week for everyone involved.

“My mom is a basket case,” Matt said Monday morning.

The Warhawks’ starting quarterback is far from that stage of excitement, but he knows what could happen in the next four days.

“This week is pretty special,” he said. “It will be the last college football game, so you start to reflect a little bit.”

That reflection includes his roller-coaster junior season last year. He took over as the Warhawks’ starting quarterback after Jeff Donovan led the Warhawks to the Stagg Bowl in his last two seasons.

Blanchard helped the Warhawks to a 10-0 regular season. He threw for 2,132 yards, completing 72.4 percent of his passes with 21 TDs and just one interception.

But in the final regular-season game, Blanchard smacked his thumb on an opponent’s helmet on his follow through. A broken thumb kept him out of the playoffs. Sophomore Lee Brekke quarterbacked the team through five playoff victories that culminated in the Warhawks’ second straight national title.

“I missed the five most important games of season,” Blanchard said. “It was a humbling experience for me. It definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the game.”

The way Blanchard handled himself in that span gave the coaching staff a greater appreciation of his leadership skills.

Tough end of the season

Coach Lance Leipold said it was agonizing to watch Blanchard attempt to throw during the week in an effort to get back in action during last season’s playoff run.

“He is an extremely talented athlete, and to watch him go out Tuesday and Wednesday to try and throw the ball and then come in, and we’d have to tell him, ‘No,’ it wasn’t happening,” Leipold said.

Leipold has taken four previous Warhawk teams to the national championship game. Knowing Blanchard would get his shot at playing in this year’s title game made last Saturday’s semifinal victory over the University of St. Thomas special.

“I was pulling for him,” Leipold said.

Blanchard is 6 foot 3 and weighs 225 pounds. In addition to throwing for 2,755 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, he has rushed for 440 yards and two other scores while running his record to 24-0 as a starting quarterback. He was a triple-option quarterback at Lake Zurich High and led the team to the school’s first trip to the state finals.

He originally went to Northern Michigan University. After his redshirt freshman season, he decided to transfer.

“I loved the school,” Blanchard said. “Northern Michigan has a great campus. It’s on the shore of Lake Superior. I just didn’t see the football team going in the direction where they would win.”

Derek, who works at Lake Forest (Ill.) High School, said he would have liked for Matt to become a Purple Raider, but he wanted him “to do his own thing.”

Location was part of the reason that Matt now wears Whitewater purple. Lake Zurich is just an hour and 20 minutes away. The coaching staff, players and facilities also were major selling points.

Blanchard’s leadership abilities make him an ideal starting quarterback, Leipold said.

“He manages the game very well,” Leipold said. “He’s made great decisions all season. He throws the ball well without forcing it. He’s a big body and runs well.”

The team leaves today for Virginia. The Gagliardi Trophy will be awarded Wednesday.

“It’s a well-deserved honor,” Leipold said of Blanchard being one of four finalists.

Gagliardi brothers

Matt isn’t the first one in his family to be a finalist for the Gagliardi. Derek was a finalist in 2007 when Whitewater’s Justin Beaver won the award.

Besides his on-field accomplishments, Blanchard is being recognized for his off-field contributions through his Gagliardi nomination. He volunteers at Fairhaven, a Whitewater senior living facility, and has participated in the Relay for Life and in a reading program in the Whitewater elementary schools.

“Whitewater is a small community, and there’s a big following for the football team,” he said. “Any opportunity I have to give back and help Whitewater, I do.”

Blanchard’s size and ability have attracted attention from pro scouts. He would love the opportunity to play at the pro level. If not, he wants to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and teach and coach.

(On the team’s website, Blanchard lists his dream job as “Head Coach for the Chicago Bears.” However, he wears No. 15 because his dad, Steve, was a Packer fan growing up watching Bart Starr play.)

Matt credits Derek with helping him get to this point. That brotherly love will be tested Friday when Derek—who was recently named to the D3football.com All-Decade Team 2000-2009—watches his alma mater go up against Matt and the Warhawks.

The decision

“We talked last (Sunday) night,” Matt said, chuckling. “He’ll be chirping all week. He’s a Purple Raider for life. He bleeds Raider Nation.”

So where does that put him Friday night?

“He says he’ll be standing in the end zone,” Matt said. “I’m going to try to convince him to sit in the Whitewater section.”

Derek was hesitant to throw his support in that direction.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “A lot of my former teammates will be there for the game.”

A little later, Derek relented.

“I love my brother and hope he blows the doors off,” he said. “I hate to have this in the paper, but I’m going to have to go with my brother. I have the rest of my life to go with Mount Union. They’ll be back there (in the title game) again.”

Sounds like Matt has another victory to add to his list of accomplishments.

Last updated: 7:07 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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