Before today, I had of course not seen a Wisconsin-Whitewater game this year (or ever), and I bet you hadn't either. Through three quarters against Wartburg, you had to think that the spate of miscues was uncharacteristic. Even in Division-III, nobody gets to the final 8 of a national tournament playing as UWW did in the first half.
By midway through the fourth, you saw nine minutes that erased the previous 45 and the Whitewater team that has run up gaudy win totals in Lance Leipold's eight-year tenure and knew what the hype was about.
On their way to a 19-13 lead at the break, the visiting Wartburg Knights scored on their first five drives and punted just once thanks to four key third down conversions, at least three big Warhawk penalties, and a number of big passing plays down the middle. UWW's defense was missing starting senior cornerback Marcus McLin and was unable to get off the field, though it could have been a lot worse; Wartburg settled for four straight field goals inside the red zone.
Every time Coach Leipold's team was able to build a touch of momentum, they quickly let it go. A missed extra point, a fumble from wide receiver Jake Kumerow inside the five, and a kick returner in no man's land on the goal line lucky to avoid a safety all slowed UWW's comeback attempts. Toward the end of the first half Whitewater was able to score thanks to a number of big plays to the outside and an increased tempo, and even forced a punt on defense. But with a chance to take the lead heading into the break, Matt Behrendt threw his third interception in two games.
The momentum was up for grabs after the half, and despite an opening scoring drive from UWW, Wartburg quickly and efficiently took control. The Warhawks pulled within three, but two long Wartburg drives sandwiched around a failed fourth-down conversion sliced through Coach Leipold's defense and put the Knights up 17 with 20 minutes to play. Time and time again Wartburg found big pass gains through the middle and big ground gains to the edges.
It's important to point out that Wartburg were themselves 12-0 and ranked #5 in all of Division III. Any win over Whitewater is an upset, but every team left at this point is very good at football. Also of note: in the 2013 quarterfinals, Whitewater similarly faced a 17-point deficit, though that low point came with 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
With much less time to mount a comeback this year, the Warhawks just had to work more quickly. The first three minutes of the fourth quarter featured one of the bigger momentum swings I can remember. On the second play from scrimmage Dennis Moore took a handoff through the right 'B' gap 57 yards to the house. Two snaps later, UWW recovered a Wartburg fumble just on the edge of the red zone. It didn't take long to score again and get within three.
The pendulum swung even further when Wartburg's Logan Schafer looked to be seriously injured and left the game. Future Buffalo DC Brian Borland sent the house on third down for a big sack, and after a punt UWW took the lead, having scored 21 straight points in under nine minutes in the fourth quarter. Shafer would return but clearly couldn't hack it, as the Knights went three-and-out before UWW worked to run down the clock.
The Warhawks would be forced to punt rather than go for it on 4th and 1 from Wartburg's 38, but easily held Wartburg and the injured Schrader to a turnover on downs to seal up the 37-33 win.
On the day, Whitewater was plagued by penalties: 8 for 81 yards that gifted Wartburg four first downs. They racked up 237 yards on the ground and 345 through the air. Behrendt and Kumerow were the offensive stars for UWW, the QB throwing 4 touchdowns and the junior wide receiver hauling in 6 catches for 146 yards. The Whitewater defense stiffened as the game went on and tallied four or five sacks on their side of the ball.
Whitewater advances to play Linfield in the National Semifinal next Saturday. Congrats to the Warhawks and Coach Leipold!