Kevin Bullis believes his UW-Whitewater football team is about three plays away from being 2-0.
If that was the case, all would probably feel normal in the NCAA Division III college football world, and the Warhawks would be assuming their typical spot near the top of the national rankings.
Instead, UW-W is a head-turning 0-2 and has slipped from the rankings heading into its third and final nonconference game, at Washington-St. Louis, on Saturday.
While some folks on the outside looking in might be wondering what is wrong at Whitewater, Bullis and the Warhawks are not in any sort of panic mode.
“The key thing is, first and foremost, don’t overreact and don’t over-compensate,” Bullis said. “It’s not time to throw the baby out with the bath water.
“Obviously we’re terribly unhappy being 0-2, and that’s the vulnerability—when you are 0-2 and you’re not used to that, is overreacting. ... The key thing is making corrections.”
Both of the Warhawks’ losses to start the season have been one-possession games. They fell, 25-17, at Concordia (Minnesota) last weekend after a 17-10 loss in the season opener at Illinois Wesleyan.
Goal-line turnovers plagued Whitewater in the opener. A costly big play—a 71-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that broke a 10-10 tie—was a major culprit in losing the second game.
The Warhawks are allowing more than twice as many rushing yards (185.5 per game) than they are gaining for themselves (83). And they’ve turned the ball over three times in each game.
Those stats are atypical from UW-Whitewater teams over the past decade-plus. And Bullis says the early-season struggles have led his talented players to put added pressure on themselves. On many of the critical plays that have cost the team a victory, players are trying to do too much.
“We’re pressing,” Bullis said, citing several examples, including a player dropping a snap, a lineman changing his footwork based on a different offensive personnel package instead of sticking to his technique, and a running back unnecessarily reaching out for an extra yard and fumbling. “All the turnovers, we were pressing on every one of them.
“Relax fellas, you don’t have to press in that situation. What you need to do is stay in the present and focus on what you do. You eliminate a couple of those events, and we’re standing here 2-0. ... But we’re not. We’re 0-2. But don’t overreact.”
Probably the biggest surprise of all is that the pressing and mistakes are coming on the offensive side of the ball. The unit returned 10 starters from last season, when the Warhawks didn’t lose a game until the third round of the Division III playoffs.
UW-W’s offense is doing plenty of damage, racking up 330 yards per game so far. But the turnovers have kept the Warhawks from cashing in.
“I said, ‘Guys, you are a talented group ... and that’s why you’re pressing, because you know you’re much better than what’s happening,’” Bullis said. “It’s helping kids understand that pressure is a good thing, unless you over-focus on it. You’ve got to control that self-expectation, so that it doesn’t distract you.”
UW-W will attempt to right the ship against a 1-1 Washington University-St. Louis team coming off a 28-12 victory over Chicago last weekend.
The Warhawks also have a bye next week before opening Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play Sept. 30 at Oshkosh.