A quote from Kevin Bullis on Saturday likely caught most ardent UW-Whitewater football followers a bit off guard.
The Warhawks’ head coach, very much following in the footsteps of his predecessor Lance Leipold, rarely strays from his script. The next game is the most important one; to win, the players must stick to their principles; and all motivation should come from within, not from outside distractions like revenge games or rivalries.
But after UW-W beat Wartburg in an NCAA Division III second-round playoff game Saturday, Bullis said he and his team had been hoping for a rematch with Mary Hardin-Baylor since the Cru knocked the Warhawks out in a national semifinal game nearly a year ago.
“The moment that game ended a year ago, I just hoped and prayed to have the opportunity to face them in 2019,” Bullis said. “I mean that out of respect for them, but we have something to prove.”
Asked again Wednesday about those comments during a media teleconference ahead of Saturday’s noon national quarterfinal in Belton, Texas, Bullis said they stemmed mostly from the rich football history of both UW-W and Mary Hardin-Baylor programs.
“I’m just being candid,” Bullis said. “There’s such a rich tradition between these two programs that it’s exciting. These two teams are two extremely successful programs at the Division III level, and we’ve had great opportunities going back to when coach (Bob) Berezowitz was the head coach here.
“I’m a history guy, so to me, that’s exciting. Now, does that change our preparation and how we do it? To me, it’s all consistent. ... It’s all about us taking the Wartburg film and learning what we need to get better at.”
Bullis also said he could not wait for last year’s meeting with Mary Hardin-Baylor because of the team’s long playoff history.
Mary Hardin-Baylor is the defending national champion and has won two of the past three Stagg Bowls. The last time a team not named Mary Hardin-Baylor, UW-Whitewater or Mount Union won the DIII title was 2003.
Saturday’s quarterfinal winner will be tasked with continuing that streak, because top-ranked Mount Union was upset in the second round last weekend.
That said, it seems difficult to believe the Warhawks will not be motivated—perhaps in the back of their minds—by a rematch of a game that was their only loss last year.
In last year’s semifinal, they turned the ball over four times and gave up a long punt return for a touchdown. Five such plays will make it hard to win any football game, let alone one against one of the top-ranked DIII teams in the country.
“We didn’t take the ball away from Mary Hardin-Baylor a year ago, and they took it away four times from us,” said Bullis, whose team trailed 17-0 at halftime and could not recover in a 31-14 loss. “That, to me, may be the biggest stat and most important stat coming out of that game.
“Giving up explosives on special teams—we had a field goal blocked and we gave up a (punt) return for a touchdown. ... Those are things you have to live and learn from, and we have learned from them.”
The Warhawks now have a chance to put those lessons to good use in their highly anticipated rematch in Belton on Saturday.
Catch him if you can
Crusaders wide receiver Jonel Reed has seemingly been a one-man wrecking crew in the passing game this season.
In 11 games, he has caught 58 passes for 1,117 yards and 15 touchdowns. Mary Hardin-Baylor’s next best receiver has 27 catches for 311 yards and four scores.
“You don’t nullify a player like that,” Bullis said. “It’s going to be very important that we don’t give them a long touchdown pass, and he’s obviously a threat for that.”
“It’s discipline with your coverage, but it’s also with your pass rush. You can’t give Mary Hardin-Baylor’s quarterback the opportunity or time.”
One team will have the same quarterback as last year, while the other will not.
Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Jase Hammack completed 14 of 19 attempts but for just 109 yards with an interception in last year’s meeting with Whitewater.
This year, in nine games, he has thrown for 1,543 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions. In the Crusaders’ two playoff games, he has thrown for 514 yards and six touchdowns and has also scored a rushing touchdown.
UW-Whitewater has gone between Zach Oles and Max Meylor at quarterback, with Meylor getting the work in the playoffs. He has completed 17 of 44 attempts for 258 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions.
“Zach was dealing with some injuries toward the end of the (regular) season, and it was really ultimately affecting his ability to throw a clean ball,” Bullis said. “Max came in and did a fantastic job for us and has really been very consistent.”