Wisconsin-Whitewater in D-III national championship for eighth time in nine years

Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Matt Behrendt has thrown for 3,041 yards with 36 touchdowns and one interception this season.

Wisconsin-Whitewater Athletics

The first five offensive drives of Saturday’s game went

about as poorly as could be imagined for a Wisconsin-Whitewater football team

on the cusp of playing for a national championship. The Warhawks, so accustomed

to winning over the years, looked instead as though the weight of the moment

might collapse right on top of them. 

The results looked like this: Punt. Punt. Safety. Fumble.

Punt. Whitewater trailed 12-0 against undefeated Mary Hardin-Baylor in a

national semifinal, and a Stagg Bowl spot was slipping away.

At least, that’s how it looked from the outside. On the

sideline, players said there was no panic.

“It wasn’t a big commotion,” Warhawks receiver

Tyler Huber said. “We knew what we needed to do. Basically, we were not

playing at the level we wanted to play at in the beginning of the first

quarter. We were shooting ourselves in the foot. We knew sooner or later we’d

get in rhythm and we’d get things going and it would be all right.”

Added Whitewater linebacker Cole Klotz: “We were kind

of all over the place. Everybody needed to take a chill pill.”

The confident and calm approach worked, as it has all

season. Whitewater stormed back to stun Mary Hardin-Baylor 16-15 and advance to

its eighth Stagg Bowl in nine years. And though the game was thrilling, players

recognized in the immediate aftermath that time for celebration was limited.

Following a flight from Texas and a bus ride from Madison to

Whitewater, they arrived at their dorm rooms after midnight on Sunday. They

were back in the film room early the next morning to prepare for their toughest

challenge yet — one that has become awfully familiar.

Whitewater (14-0) will face Mount Union (14-0) at 6 p.m. CT

Friday in Salem, Va., for the Division III national championship. It is a team

the Warhawks have played in all seven of their previous trips to the title

game, with Whitewater winning four of those games. Mount Union narrowly edged

North Central (Ill.) 41-40 on Saturday to make its ninth straight championship

appearance.

“We seem to play them a heck of a lot more than anybody

else in our conference it seems like over the past couple of years,” said

Klotz, who leads Whitewater with 96 tackles. “It’s a great rivalry. We’ve

got nothing but respect for each other.”

The fact Whitewater has reached this point is not all that

surprising when considering the program’s track record of success. Under

seventh-year head coach Lance Leipold, the Warhawks are an astounding 93-6

(.939 winning percentage). But a closer look at the team’s turnaround over the

past two seasons is worth noting.

A year ago, the unthinkable happened at Whitewater: the

Warhawks missed the playoffs entirely. Whitewater had its 46-game winning

streak come to a crushing end early in the season and finished 7-3.

Leipold said he always envisioned Whitewater’s first season

without a title game appearance might come during a year in which it completely

missed the playoffs. He noted the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

was one of the most difficult in the nation. He also pointed out several key

players suffered injuries last season, though he did not offer that as an

excuse.

Leipold wouldn’t use the word complacency but did say he

thought the team lost its edge last season.

“A lot of people want to be part of a winning program

and be on a winning program, but are they willing to do all the things that are

necessary to keep it going?” Leipold told reporters this week on a

conference call. “We’d had guys that were in our program that just didn’t

want to play football anymore. We had some young players we recruited in our

two-deep that decided that, ‘Wow, this is a lot more work than I thought it was

going to be.’ That was a poor evaluation and poor decision-making on my part as

a head coach.”

Klotz and Huber said they used last season as a motivating

force and rallied teammates to realize a national title berth wasn’t simply

handed to them because they had been there before. Schematically, the team was

aided this year by staff turnover that breathed new life into the program.

Andy Kotelnicki took over as offensive coordinator for Steve

Dinkel, who was with the program since 2001. The Warhawks also hired Alan

Hensell to serve as the team’s wide receivers coach. And the results have been

spectacular. Whitewater increased its scoring average from 24.7 points per game

to 35.8. At the same time, the Warhawks dropped their scoring defense average

from 10.2 to 8.7 points under 12th-year defensive coordinator Brian Borland.

Huber said Kotelnicki opened up the offense more this

season, which has created more explosive plays. Whitewater is passing on 45.1

percent of its plays, compared to 40.3 percent last season.

Quarterback Matt Behrendt has thrived in the offense and put

together one of the finest seasons you’ll ever see from a Division III

quarterback. Last season, he earned the starting job midway through the year

and threw for 775 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. This

season, he’s thrown for 3,041 yards with 36 touchdowns and only one interception.

Consider that the 17 other Division III quarterbacks to have

thrown for at least 3,000 yards this season combined to throw 166

interceptions, or nearly 10 per quarterback.

“It’s really mind-blowing,” Mount Union coach

Vince Kehres said of Behrendt’s season. “To have a percentage like that,

every once in a while, you’d think a ball would get tipped in the air and it’s

not the quarterback’s fault. Somebody picks it off. It shows tremendous

accuracy and outstanding decision-making to not try and force throws.”

Huber, a first-team all-conference player in 2011, suffered

a season-ending ankle injury after two games last year. But he has returned for

his senior season and caught 37 passes for 478 yards with six touchdowns. Jake

Kumerow has become Behrendt’s favorite target with 70 catches for 1,228 yards

and 17 touchdowns.

The Warhawks recognize they’ll need every bit of that

production to topple the defending champions. And simply being in the title

game after a one-year hiatus is not enough.

“When something is taken away from you,” Leipold

said, “you’ve got to go back and get it.”

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