A date with Mary Hardin-Baylor in an NCAA Division III semifinal football game?
The UW-Whitewater Warhawks can almost set their watches to it at this point.
Five years ago, UW-W edged Mary Hardin-Baylor 16-15. Five years before that, the Warhawks beat the Crusaders 39-13.
And on Saturday, the two teams will renew their rivalry with a game back in Belton, with each hoping to earn a spot in the Stagg Bowl—Division III’s national title game.
“It’s the experience we’ve had against them in the past that really builds that respect,” Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said. “They didn’t just get on the radar. They’ve been on the radar for a long time for Warhawk football. … 2008 was my first opportunity to compete against them, and you want to talk about a disciplined, athletic, physical football team, they typify that.
“The games have been just dogfights. I can’t wait for this game.”
The rivalry actually stretches back a bit before that. The two teams had a home-and-home nonconference series in 2006 and 2007. Whitewater won both of those regular-season games. In 2007 the teams met for a rare playoff rematch, with UW-W winning 16-7 in Whitewater in the semifinals.
Bullis said the philosophies of both programs have changed very little over the past decade or so.
“Our goal is to play run defense … and to eliminate long passes, long touchdowns. Philosophically, we will not change. That’s who we are, that’s our identity,” Bullis said. “And I would dare say they’re pretty similar. They’re going to play great run defense and they’re not going to give up the long ball. It’s two teams that are philosophically very similar on the defensive side of the ball.”
And they’re two of the best defenses in Division III, as well.
Mary Hardin-Baylor is the No. 1 team in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 7.5 points per game. Whitewater ranks fourth (9.3).
The Crusaders are third in the nation in total defense (209.9 yards per game), while UW-W ranks ninth (240.0).
In other words, don’t expect an offensive shootout.
“Who takes care of the football, who does not allow long plays, those are going to be the two elements of the game. That is going to decide the game on Saturday, and it has in the past,” Bullis said. “It’s what happened in 2013, what happened in 2008, and I don’t see that changing. They don’t hide who they are … and we don’t hide who we are. I guarantee you both teams’ playbooks are not very thick.”
And they likely won’t be much thicker when the teams, presumably, meet again in the semis in 2023.
Another familiar face
In the other national semifinal, top-ranked Mount Union hosts Johns Hopkins.
The last time a team not named Whitewater, Mount Union or Mary Hardin-Baylor won the DIII national title was Linfield in 2003. Whitewater and Mount Union have six titles each during that span.
“It’d be quite an honor. I’d be very humbled by it because of all the hard work these kids put into it,” Bullis said when asked what it would mean for his Warhawks to reach the Stagg Bowl. “And that’s really what it is, the hard work the coaches and players have done to get to this point is utterly amazing.”
Move the sticks
If Whitewater’s offense is to find success Saturday, it will almost certainly need to be better on third down.
The Warhawks were 4 of 14 on third-down conversions in their quarterfinal victory over Bethel, when they completed just 1 of 9 passes overall.
Bullis said his team struggled extending drives due to multiple reasons, including a second-half game script that called for his team to run the ball and milk clock with a two-possession lead.
“I go, ‘They’ve got to score two touchdowns to beat us, and they’re not gonna,’” Bullis said. “Let’s shorten the game ... run the ball, run the clock down, be long in the huddle and grind first downs.
“We were forcing Bethel to throw the football in that 24-mph crosswind, 34 degrees and rain. It was the worst throwing conditions I’ve ever seen.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor ranks sixth nationally in third-down conversion defense.
The Warhawks will practice at home today before flying to Texas tonight. They’ll practice in Texas on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game.
“It’s 2 hours and 45 minutes,” Bullis said of the flight. “I look at it like a bus trip. We take bus trips that are four hours, so it’s going to be a nice, short bus trip.”