UW-Whitewater’s special teams units saw their share of struggles throughout this college football season.
But in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, the Warhawks dominated the often-overlooked third facet of the game when they earned a 41-28 victory over visiting Wartburg College at Perkins Stadium on Saturday.
The standout effort on special teams helped UW-Whitewater earn a trip to the DIII national quarterfinals. The seventh-ranked Warhawks will play at No. 2-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor at noon Saturday in Belton, Texas.
Against Wartburg, Justin Prostinak, a senior special teams expert, returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown to give the Warhawks (11-1) a 31-7 lead with 9 minutes, 21 seconds left in the second quarter.
Andy Cooper, a senior punter who doubled as a wide receiver last year, all but eliminated the chance of a miraculous comeback by Wartburg (10-2) when his 49-yard punt pinned the Knights on their own 9-yard line with 2:59 to play in the game. UW-Whitewater had the 41-28 lead at that point, and not even star quarterback Noah Dodd could eliminate the deficit.
“The second half, we knew this was a team that has a proven history of coming from behind,” UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said. “I can think of five scenarios where they had a deficit during the course of the season. One of them that stands out is their game against Central when they were down by 35 points and they took that game to OT.
“I was really pleased in the second half with how our defense weathered the storm.”
Junior linebacker Kaleb Kaminski had a pair of interceptions in the fourth quarter to cement the victory for UW-Whitewater.
Prior to the Prostinak punt return for a touchdown, freshman Egon Hein got a hand on a punt by Nick Deppe, and it only went 21 yards. The Warhawks took over on the Wartburg 38-yard line, and Wojciech Gasienica made a 36-yard field goal eight plays later to take a 17-0 lead with 2:37 remaining in the first quarter.
Wartburg and UW-Whitewater exchanged touchdowns before the Knights were forced to punt again in the second quarter. They kept extra blockers in to avoid another punt being blocked.
“Ultimately, we like to change it up on teams to not be predictable,” Bullis said. “It’s kind of like boxing. If you’re going to give body blows, then the hands are going to come down and it gives you an opportunity to swing elsewhere. If you bring the heat and come after them, you get them to sit in and protect longer. If you can do that it can give Justin a chance to raise heck on the return.”
The result was Prostinak waltzing untouched into the end zone surrounded by a handful of teammates.
“After (Ryan) Liszka’s block—he had a great block—I just saw green grass and I had to go,” Prostinak said. “They do a great job blocking up front, and the defense did a phenomenal causing a three-and-out, so just tried to take advantage of it and give the offense the ball in a good spot.”
Prostinak was the kick returner guilty of backpedaling out of bounds on his own 3-yard line against UW-Oshkosh late in the second quarter of a 27-20 loss in the regular-season finale.
Bullis and special teams coordinator John O’Grady pulled Protinak from the kick return team for the rest of the game.
The Titans made a pair of field goals to separate themselves against UW-Whitewater in that game, as well. Gasienica hit the left upright on a 35-yarder that would have given the Warhawks the lead in the third quarter. And UW-O punter Jaydon Haag punted the ball 67 yards to pin UW-Whitewater on its own 15-yard line early in the fourth.
Fast forward to the second round of the playoffs and O’Grady’s bunch put a total of 17 points.
“Last week, we had two punts get blocked, and we had been very good at special teams all year,” Bullis said. “Coach O’Grady took it personally, and so did everyone else involved with special teams.
“I think there was no doubt that there was a sense of us needing to go out and make something happen.”