Coppage leads Wis.-Whitewater to Stagg Bowl win

Level Coppage burst through the line, saw all green in front of

him and knew he could turn his late third-and-6 carry into a

championship.

That’s not all he was thinking.

”Am I going fast, one? Two, should I zig-zag? And three, is

anybody behind me?” Coppage said after sealing

Wisconsin-Whitewater’s third NCAA Division III national

championship in four years with a 75-yard touchdown run Saturday in

the Warhawks’ 31-21 victory over Mount Union.

Coppage ran for 299 yards, an Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl record, and

three touchdowns and Wisconsin-Whitewater forced five turnovers and

shut out Mount Union in the second half.

The Warhawks completed their second straight 15-0 season,

improved to 57-3 in Lance Leipold’s four years as coach and have

supplanted the Purple Raiders as D-III kings.

”It’s unreal,” said senior defensive back Matt McCulloch, who

had two of the Warhawks’ four interceptions in the game and a

team-best eight tackles. ”I’m happy for the seniors. We deserve

it. You can’t even describe how it feels. It’s unreal. It’s

awesome.”

Coppage, the game’s most outstanding player for the second year

in a row, made it look easy at times. He scored on runs of 54, 11

and 75 yards, the latter with 2:34 to play.

”As the game went on, they were really condensing the holes,”

he said, a champions cap perched on his head. He said the Purple

Raiders’ strategy caused him to start running outside, like on his

11-yard TD. ”After I did that, the inside started opening up for

me.”

The Purple Raiders came in with the nation’s top defense,

allowing less than 200 yards per game, and with every intention of

slowing down the 5-foot-8, 170-pound tailback.

”He’s a patient runner and he’ll wait until he sees a gap in

the defense,” Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, whose team lost for

the fourth time in 14 Stagg Bowls, said. ”He can start and

accelerate so tremendously in the first 5, 6 yards, and then

`POOF!’ he’s gone.”

Coppage carried 39 times and went over 2,000 yards for the

season with 25 TDs.

The Purple Raiders (14-1) did all their scoring in less than 4

minutes in the second quarter, with the help of two turnovers, but

otherwise couldn’t solve the Warhawks’ defense.

”They’re kind of ticking me off,” Kehres said of the Warhawks,

with a wink, ”and I might have to kick myself in gear a little bit

to get ready to win three out of the next four.”

The teams set a record by each appearing in the championship

game for the sixth consecutive season. They had shared the mark

with fellow Division III member Augustana College (Ill.), which

played in five straight 1982 to 1986, winning the last four

games.

After a high scoring first half, the defense tightened in the

second half.

With both teams using backup quarterbacks because of injuries,

three series ended on interceptions in the third quarter, and when

Mount Union put quarterback-turned-receiver Cecil Shorts behind

center for more mobility in the fourth quarter, he fumbled the ball

away on one possession and got sacked for a 9-yard loss by Luke

Hibner on another key play.

The latter came shortly before Coppage’s long touchdown run

sealed it.

The first half was completely different.

Coppage gave the Warhawks the lead when he broke through the

line and outran three defenders to the end zone from 54 yards away.

After a 25-yard punt by Brandon Mathie went out of bounds at the

Purple Raiders 28 late in the first quarter, the Warhawks drove to

the Mount Union 13, and Eric Kindler’s 30-yard field goal gave

Whitewater a 10-0 advantage.

Three touchdowns in less than 4 minutes gave Mount Union the

lead.

”We were excited when we scored the 21 points, and how fast we

did it,” said backup quarterback Matt Piloto, who started because

of an injury to Neal Seaman last week. ”But we knew that we were

going to have to keep on going because they have a great

defense.”

First, Coppage was stripped of the ball by Nick Driskill and

Charles Diesuel recovered for Mount Union at the Warhawks 40. On

the second play, after a 1-yard run by Jeremy Murray, Piloto hit

Kyle Miller for a 39-yard touchdown play down the right

sideline.

Whitewater’s backup quarterback Lee Brekki, who played

throughout the playoffs after starter Matt Blanchard was hurt in

the regular-season finale, then threw right to lineman Lambert

Budzinski, and he returned it to the Warhawks 4. Two plays later,

Murray took it in from the 1, his 21st touchdown, and Mount Union

had its first lead of the game at 14-13.

The Purple Raiders made it 21-10 after a three-and-out for the

Warhawks when Piloto found Shorts behind the secondary and hit him

in stride, a 58-yard connection 6:50 before halftime.

But the Warhawks responded, going 65 yards on their ensuing

possession. Coppage went wide around the left side and lunged for

the touchdown from 11 yards out with 2:46 to play.

They got the ball back with 1:56 to play, and a 30-yard pass

from Brekki to Adam Brandes highlighted a seven-play drive to

Brekke’s 31-yard TD pass to Tyler Huber on third-and-9.

That have the Warhawks a 24-21 lead, and their defense – and

Coppage – made it stand up.