Justin Hansen still shudders when he thinks back to three years ago.
His freshman year of college followed the path of many freshman football players—which is to say, he was not playing in his first year on the campus at UW-Whitewater.
“Not being able to play when you’ve basically been a four-year starter in high school, it’s tough,” Hansen said this week. “But knowing you’re on a great team, you’ve just got to trust the process.”
Since then, Hansen’s career has been a dream. He earned playing time as a sophomore, was an honorable mention all-conference defensive lineman as a junior, and on Friday he will cap his career on the biggest of all NCAA Division III stages: at the Stagg Bowl in Shenandoah, Texas.
The Warhawks take on North Central (Illinois) at 7 p.m. Friday.
Hansen seems to have saved his most impressive stretch of games for last, when UW-Whitewater needed him the most. The Beloit Turner High graduate has posted all four of his sacks this season in the Warhawks’ last three playoff games, including two Saturday in a victory over St. John’s (Minnesota) that propelled them into the DIII title game.
“It’s really been a pleasure watching him develop,” UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis said.
“He develops each week, and he’s a guy we ask a lot of, because he plays defensive end, plays defensive tackle, and when you do that with a guy, they’ve got to be a very intelligent, savvy, high IQ football player.”
Hansen was a Gazette all-area team selection following his senior year of football at Turner, when he was named first-team all-Rock Valley Conference as both a defensive lineman and a running back. He had 12 sacks on defense and ran for 939 yards and nine touchdowns on offense.
He did get in two games as a freshman but did not accumulate a statistic. As a sophomore, he had seven tackles, including one for loss, a half a sack and a pass defended in nine games.
Hansen took on a more prominent role as a junior, playing all 13 games and posting 23 tackles, including 6.5 for losses and three sacks.
He had not put up the same statistics in his first 11 games this season. He had just seven tackles.
But Mackenzie Balanganayi, the West Region defensive player of the year who had nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss during the regular season, went down with an injury in the Warhawks’ first playoff game.
In the three since, Balanganayi’s defensive linemates have picked up his slack in a big way. That includes Hansen, who has all four of his sacks and all five of his tackles for losses in the past three games.
“It just made me step up even more, to where I’ve got to grab a bigger piece of the rope and start to make a difference for our team,” Hansen said. “Me, Jordan Brand and, Niko (Lemke), honestly, as a freshman. We’ve been playing well as a unit.
“We just looked at each other and knew that with Mack gone, we have to do something right now or else we’re not going to be making it very far.”
Now the Warhawks have made it as far as they can possibly make it, to their 11th appearance in the national championship game since 2005 but first since 2014.
“This is the way any football player would ever want to go out,” Hansen said. “To go out in a national championship. I suppose the Super Bowl, if you’re at that level, but a championship in some kind of way.
“Hopefully we come out on top.”
Battle in the trenches
The skill position players on North Central’s offense garner most of the attention.
When you have a quarterback (Broc Rutter) who is second in the nation in passing, Division III’s top rusher (Ethan Greenfield) and a receiver who has caught 30 touchdowns just this season (Andrew Kamienski), that tends to happen.
But both UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis and North Central head coach Jeff Thorne said this week the battle between the Cardinals’ offense and Warhawks’ defense may come down to the battle between the lines.
“We had a lot of moving parts early on in the season,” Thorne said of his offensive line. “At the end of the day, we have an All-American left guard ... and a fifth-year senior at the other guard. And both of those guys are really, really, athletic.
“The big concern (against Muhlenberg in the semifinals) was their two defensive ends. ... They were a handful and great players, but I thought our tackles did a good job of neutralizing those two.”
North Central is allowing about two sacks per game and has allowed either two or three in every playoff game. The only time it allowed more than three all season was when it gave up seven in its lone loss to Wheaton.
Whitewater averages nearly four sacks per game and piled up seven of them in a game for the second time this season during last week’s semifinal.
“For us to be able to get pressure on the quarterback, we’re going to have to stop the run,” Bullis said. “We have to get them in situations, force them into throwing the ball. That’s when Niko, Jordan, Justin Hansen, those guys are going to have to show up and be disruptive at a minimum.
“As good as their offensive line is, it’s not like you’re going to come out of that game with double-digit sacks or anything like that. It’s going to have to be about being able to disrupt him (Rutter) and move him off his spot and make his vision tougher.”