Nothing is coming easy for the UW-Whitewater football team this season.
Granted, Warhawks head coach Kevin Bullis would likely say nothing ever comes easy for a college football team.
But his reached the NCAA Division III national semifinals a year ago by blowing out the competition.
This year, they continue to hold down the No. 3 spot in the D3football.com rankings and carry an 8-0 record into Saturday’s 2 p.m. kickoff against UW-Stout at Perkins Stadium.
But the average margin of victory is just 16.6 points and five of the eight wins have come by 10 points or less.
UW-W’s latest brush with defeat came Saturday, when UW-La Crosse led by three points heading into the fourth quarter and regained that three-point edge with a touchdown with just less than 10 minutes remaining. The Warhawks needed just over a minute to answer and regain the lead, and they held on from there to win 21-17.
“It’s so easy to throw the baby out with the bath water when you haven’t scored points in the first half,” Bullis said.
“But no, we felt great about our game plan. The details and execution is where the issue was. Just getting that finalized, we were able to put points on the board in the second half.
“There was no concern on anybody’s part. Yeah, we wish we would’ve had more points in the first half, we wish we would’ve executed better in the first half. But there wasn’t any sense of panic or concern.”
A lack of blowouts—or style points—is not something that should affect UW-Whitewater’s postseason resume. If it wins its final two games to go 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, it should still be set up for a long string of playoff home games.
UW-W was ranked No. 1 in the initial edition of the NCAA West Region Rankings earlier this week.
And, in fact, some might argue that finding ways to win a slew of close games might actually help a team when the postseason rolls around.
But the numbers are still certainly interesting.
In their 13 victories last year, the Warhawks won nine times by at least 28 points and twice more by at least 20.
This year, Whitewater has won by 20 or more just three times.
“It says a lot about our mental toughness,” Bullis said. “Being down by 10, they didn’t flinch. As the head coach, I don’t coach a position, so I’m locked in on how we’re managing things and I’m watching how we’re reacting.
“I look at players on the sidelines, and the body language was beautiful, communication was fantastic, attitude was perfect. That mental toughness is definitely a key component of this team’s chemistry.”
If recent trends continue, the Warhawks could be in for another close game Saturday.
Not only have they had more close calls this year, but UW-Stout has spent nearly every game in a tight battle. The Blue Devils are just 3-5, but four of their five losses have come by 10 points or less. Six of their eight games have been decided by eight points or less (three wins and three losses).
“That’s (one-score games), it’s what they’re doing to people,” Bullis said. “They’re playing very good run defense. Offensively, they’re moving the ball primarily throwing the ball. And they’re doing a great job of taking care of the football.
“Surprise, surprise, it’s like everyone in our league is throwing the ball.”
A close game Saturday would buck one recent trend. Whitewater, which has beaten Stout 17 straight times dating back to 2002, has won the last seven meetings over the Blue Devils by an average of 32 points, with five of those seven wins coming by at least 30.
WIAC title race
UW-Whitewater can clinch a share of the WIAC championship with a victory Saturday.
It’s looking more and more like next week’s season finale at UW-Oshkosh might be a battle to see if the Warhawks win the title outright or share it.
Whitewater is 5-0 and holds a one-game lead on Oshkosh, which plays UW-River Falls—winless in the WIAC—this weekend.
Growing to do
While Bullis said no one on the Warhawks sideline panicked in Saturday’s loss to UW-La Crosse, he did use the team’s slow start to drive home a point to his players that they still have plenty of room to grow.
“One of the things I’m very excited about ... and some people would call it a concern, but no, we’ve got a lot of growth potential yet,” Bullis said. “We’ve got to continue to develop every dang day fundamentally.
“Instead of having zero points on the board, how about if we have 14? How about if we have 10? ... We need to start faster.”