To their right were 14,000 fans packed in the stands of Perkins Stadium.
In front of them were 11 members of the top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor defense, which was ready to hit anything that moved.
Just behind them was the scoreboard that read Visitors 24, Whitewater 21 with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter.
And in the distance—99 yards to be exact—was the goal line the Warhawks offense had to reach to win the game.
UW-Whitewater quarterback Evan Lewandowski and his favorite wide receiver Tyler Holte knew what was going to happen.
“No doubt,” Holte said. “We were able to move the ball the entire game, so we were very confident.”
Twelve plays and 2:34 later, sophomore receiver Tommy Coates made an over-the-shoulder catch of a Lewandowski pass in the deep right corner of the end zone to give UW-Whitewater a 28-24 victory over the visiting Crusaders in a game Saturday afternoon that lived up to its billing.
There were six lead changes in the matchup of NCAA Division III powers—which have combined to win nine of the last 14 NCAA Division III championships—with the Warhawks earning the final one.
The critical drive was set up when the Warhawks defense kept the Crusaders from scoring on a first-and-goal at the Warhawks 2.
Crusaders running back Thomas Aphonso, who had rushed for 68 yards and two touchdowns at that point, got the first two handoffs. He got to the Warhawks 1 on the first carry and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on the second.
On third down, the Crusaders tried the outside of the Warhawk defense with a jet sweep. K.J. Miller got the handoff as he sprinted to the right just behind the line. He attempted to outrun the Warhawk defense, but first senior linebacker Shane McGrail grabbed Miller and junior defensive back Thomas Wojnowski joined McGrail an instant later.
Miller didn’t gain an inch.
“It was just bang-bang,” said Wojnowski, who had seven solo and one assisted tackle in the win. “Coach (Jace) Rindahl had a great game plan. He let us fly, so we just sucked it up and let it rip.”
Warhawks head coach Kevin Bullis said the discipline of the defensive players and the physicality of the defensive line made the defensive stand possible.
“They charged and knocked their butts back,” Bullis said. “They might be the most physical D-line I’ve had the fortune to be around.”
Soured on their running game, the Crusaders went with a pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but quarterback Kyle King’s high pass in the middle of the end zone to open tight end Connor Mullins was bobbled and then hit the ground as Mullins dove after it.
That set up the game-winning drive that featured Lewandowski throwing seven completions in nine attempts and a 7-yard run by senior Jaylon Edmundson who finished with 64 yards on 13 carries.
The big play was a 27-yard pass down the middle to Holte to the MHB 27.
Lewandowski finished 28 of 35 passing for 301 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That erased any bad memories from last week when he was 17 of 31 and threw an interception in the Warhawks’ 24-10 loss at St. Thomas (Minnesota).
“Evan wasn’t very happy with his play last week,” Bullis said. “This week, he showed what he could do.”
“We didn’t play our game the way we wanted to,” Holte said of the opening loss. “This week our main focus was just take what the defense gave us. I thought Evan did a great job all day.”
Holte caught 10 of those for 124 yards and two touchdowns covering 17 and 18 yards.
Bullis said he couldn’t say it was the best victory in his 35-year coaching career, but the satisfaction he felt was evident.
“I’m extremely proud of these young men coming off a loss last week,” Bullis said. “The physicality of our offensive line challenged (MHB). When it comes to physicality, I think the two top teams year in and year out are Mary Hardin-Baylor and UW-Whitewater.
“We were very physical today.”
And the offense came through at the end, 99 yards and all.
“Typically, that’s something we practice once a week,” Bullis said. “Not 99, but that is something we practice.”