Pelted with heavy snow and a high-powered La Crosse offense, UW-Whitewater had the appearance of a defeated team.
Then in a near simultaneous turnaround, the snow stopped and the once-lackluster Warhawk offense unleashed three second-half touchdowns to suddenly end the Eagles’ upset aspirations Saturday.
Third-ranked Whitewater erased a 10-0 second-half deficit to pull off a 21-17 victory in a thrilling Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference battle at Perkins Stadium.
Warhawk running back Alex Peete rolled up 145 rushing yards and a touchdown, while Jarrod Ware added a 10-yard touchdown run to lead the second-half comeback.
“We talked with the offensive staff at halftime about not panicking,” UW-Whitewater football coach Kevin Bullis said. “We haven’t put any points on the board yet and we aren’t happy about it but any means, but there was no reason to change the plan.”
The plan may not have changed, but the Warhawks’ offensive tempo clearly accelerated during a swift six-play, 85-yard scoring drive capped by Peete’s 2-yard score.
That cut the Whitewater deficit to three points, 10-7, with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
“We just were playing football and knew what we could do,” said Warhawk receiver Ryan Wisniewski who had 107 of his 111 receiving yards in the second half. “It was just timing and our play calling being better than their play calling and players making plays.”
Whitewater’s defense made the next big play on the ensuing La Crosse possession with a stand on fourth-and-1 near midfield.
That turned the game into a roller-coaster of points.
Five plays after the defensive stand, Warhawk quarterback Zach Oles lobbed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Holte to give Whitewater its first lead 14-10 just 46 seconds into the fourth quarter.
La Crosse didn’t back down. The Eagles marched 64 yards on nine plays culminated with Evan Lewandowski’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Cole Spieker that allowed the Eagles to reclaim the lead 17-14 with 9:51 left.
Oles answered with a pinpoint 57-yard pass to Wisniewski that helped set up Ware’s go-ahead 10-yard touchdown run to give Whitewater the lead for good 21-17 with 8:36 left in the game.
The Eagles were on the cusp of answering, running off 10 plays for 53 yards until Warhawk safety Mark McGrath stepped in front of a Lewandowski pass at the Warhawk 9 with 4 minutes to play.
“The coverage on the interception was something we ran wrong in the first half and coach (Rob) Erickson (Warhawk defensive coordinator) was hesitant to run in the second half,” McGrath said. “We told him we’ll figure out and we’ll do it right and that was the first time we ran it in the first half.”
Whitewater, with the aid of two costly La Crosse penalties, ran out the clock to seal the emotional victory.
“Keep it rolling,” Wisniewski said. “We’re 8-0. Hard to beat that.”
An 8-0 record was in doubt throughout the first half with La Crosse grabbing the upper hand 3-0 by halftime.
The Eagles then made it 10-0 when Lewandowki hit Spieker on a 28-yard touchdown pass.
Facing their largest deficit of the season, Whitewater stepped up with 21 points to save the victory and a potential top seed in the playoffs.
WHITEWATER 21, LA CROSSE 17
La Crosse 3 0 7 7—17
Whitewater 0 0 7 14
Scoring summary: L—FG, Ryan Beirne, 35. L—Cole Spieker, 28 pass from Evan Lewandowski (Beirne kick). W—Alex Peete, 2 run (Wojciech Gasienica kick). W—Tyler Holte, 10 pass from Zach Oles (Gasienica kick). L—Spieker, 4 pass from Lewandowski (Beirne kick). W—Jarrod Ware, 10 run (Gasienica kick).
Statistics: First downs—L 19, W 18. Rushing—L 31-71, W 39-207. Yards passing—L 249, W 171. Passes—L 39-22-1, W 18-11-1. Fumbles—L 2-0, W 1-0. Penalties—L 7-72, W 5-46.
Whitewater leaders: Passing—Zach Oles, 18-11-1, 171 yards. Rushing—Alex Peet 26-145. Receiving—Ryan Wisniewski 5-111.