Kevin Bullis doesn’t mince words when talking about the play of his UW-Whitewater defense early this season.
The Warhawks allowed 100 points during their 1-3 start, giving up 346 yards in a nonconference loss to Concordia Moorhead and a whopping 589 in their Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opener against national-title contender UW-Oshkosh.
“We do think we were playing very poorly, I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Bullis said. “We set a much higher standard for ourselves.”
That loss to the Titans seemed to serve as a wakeup call.
Whitewater has given up just three touchdowns over the past three games, all victories, heading into Saturday’s conference game at UW-Stevens Point.
“After the second half of that Oshkosh game, our defense did some significant soul-searching and took it with a great sense of pride what we needed to do to play solid defense of Warhawk football,” Bullis said. “We’ve been able to really control the run game in the last three games. … It’s all about getting teams into third-and-long.”
Whitewater followed the 37-20 loss at Oshkosh with a 14-0 shutout of Stout at home. The Warhawks followed with a 21-14 victory against La Crosse and beat River Falls, 20-7, last week.
Stout rushed for 72 yards, and just 1.6 per carry. La Crosse finished at 51 and 1.3, and Rivers Falls 75 and 2.8.
“We’ve been playing very good defense on first-and-10 and forcing teams into third-and-long, which really kind of fits into our wheelhouse,” Bullis said.
Some of the Warhawks’ improvement can simply be attributed to added experience.
They lost senior captain Matt Seitz to an ankle injury in the game against Oshkosh, and the senior linebacker is out for the year following surgery.
Whitewater lists just one senior, tackle Harry Green, on its defensive two-deep depth chart entering Saturday’s game.
Junior captain Bryce Leszczynski has taken on more of a leadership role during the unit’s surge.
“Coming into this season, we knew we were immature, particularly with our defensive line group,” Bullis said. “Matt is definitely a guy that’s been a leader for us for a long time. You’ve got this four-year starter you lose. But Bryce has been a leader on this team for a long time. He’s a junior that was voted a captain. I’ve been coaching 29 years and I’ve only seen that happen twice.”
While he’s pleased with the progress, Bullis notes there’s still work to be done.
Whitewater is minus-4 in the takeaway department, recovering just five fumbles and intercepting two passes through seven games.
“Those are really the next level for us,” Bullis said.
The Warhawks may get an opportunity to improve on those numbers against Stevens Point, which enters the game at minus-3 in turnover margin.
Stevens Point has lost three of its last four games, including a 17-13 setback at Stout last Saturday. Starting quarterback Ryan Swigart, who had some of the nation’s top passing stats in the first three games, has missed the past four games with a leg injury.
“They’re a team that I would call a 50-50 team—50 percent run, 50 percent pass,” Bullis said. “It sounds terribly redundant, but controlling the run and doing well on first-and-10 is going to be the key piece for us.”
It’s another chance for Whitewater’s defense to continue trending in the right direction.