It was a coverage that the UW-Whitewater defense had failed to execute in the first quarter.
Safety Nate Tranel had been aligned close to the line of scrimmage as both underneath support for the passing game and a physical presence to help make visiting UW-La Crosse think twice before rushing the ball. Twice before, the Eagles had solved the defensive scheme.
Now in the fourth quarter and on the Warhawks 18 trailing by four points, 21-17, the Eagles faced a 2nd-and-10.
At the snap of the ball, Tranel retreated toward the goal line trading places with safety Mark McGrath. When La Crosse quarterback Evan Lewandowski threw the ball, McGrath stepped up and intercepted the throw.
UW-Whitewater ran out the remaining 4 minutes, 41 seconds of the game and the third-ranked Warhawks earned a 21-17 victory over the upset-minded Eagles after erasing a 10-point, third-quarter deficit in a WIAC game at Perkins Stadium with 7,522 fans in attendance.
“Not a whole lot changes, but it was a new package we were working with,” McGrath said of the key defensive play. “We wanted to bring Nate in at Fox linebacker and Egon Hein, a true freshman stepped up and played really well today.”
The second time the Warhawks (8-0, 5-0 WIAC) ran the coverage, they executed it to perfection and sealed the win against UW-La Crosse (5-3, 3-2), which was eliminated from the NCAA D-III playoff picture.
By putting Tranel at the line of scrimmage, it helped that the Warhawks have a defensive back who could both defend the run or the pass. In the second half, Tranel could be seen pressuring Lewandowski as an extra blitzer to complement his ability in coverage.
“Tranel was more (committed) to the run game than the pass game,” McGrath said. “That was the adjustment we made. Then in the secondary it was pretty much just the four (defensive backs).”
That left senior cornerback Jacob Frey in isolation against UW-La Crosse senior Cole Spiecker, who caught a pair of touchdowns in the second half. The first was a jump ball for 28 yards and a 10-0 lead with 8:10 to play in the third quarter. The second came on a 4th-and-1 at the UW-Whitewater 4-yard line and Spiecker caught a comeback route in the end zone.
The score gave the visitors a 17-14 lead with 9:51 to play in the fourth quarter.
“We gave up too many big plays defensively,” UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said. “It felt like we defended the run much better in the second half, but they were picking up big third downs and big plays.”
Lewandowski completed 22 of his 38 passes for 249 yards for two touchdowns before throwing the final interception.
The decision to drop Tranel into the deep zone and have McGrath attack the medium zone where Lewandowski was attempting to complete what would have been a nine-yard pass, was dictated by the UW-La Crosse formation. The Eagles ran a similar formation earlier in the game and the Warhawks recognized it, but didn’t effectively communicate through the execution.
When it mattered most, the secondary answered the bell. And when it mattered most, the Warhawks trusted Hein in the free safety position while Tranel was at the line of scrimmage.
“Egon Hein is a really good athlete and we’re really excited about Egon,” Bullis said. “Egon has been playing the last three weeks. We have this thing where we try to slowly process a guy into games.
“Coach (Rob) Erickson really felt like it was an opportunity to get Egon on the field a little bit more as well. We feel very confident about our three safeties with Mark McGrath, Tranel and Hein, who is starting to show himself.”
That secondary paid off that confidence at just the right time Saturday afternoon.