Photo by Ryan Tipps, D3sports.com
By Keith McMillan
SALEM -- Levell Coppage took a handoff, bounced outside, darted 31 yards to the pylon and turned Division III on its head once again.
Mount Union's stirring comeback from a 28-14 halftime deficit to tie Stagg Bowl XXXVII until Coppage's clinching score with 1:17 left nearly ended with the Purple Raiders' 11th national championship in 13 trips to Salem, and fourth in five games here against UW-Whitewater. Instead, the Warhawks finished what they started, and their 38-28 win was their second in three seasons under D3football.com Coach of the Year Lance Leipold.
UW-Whitewater's victory meant it has alternated national championships the past four seasons with Mount Union, cementing the Warhawks' spot as The Machine's equal. And there are Division III fans who claim to be bored seeing the same two teams face off in Salem year after year, there was nary a negative thought to be uttered as Saturday's Stagg Bowl came down to the final minutes. With Mount Union holding a 3-2 edge in the series but UW-Whitewater standing as national champions, a rather respectful rivalry has taken hold.
“They've all been battles in the three years I've been
here,” said Leipold of the clashes with the Purple Raiders,
who along with the Warhawks now form a co-dynasty lording over the
other 200-plus playoff-eligible teams.
Mount Union coach Larry Kehres had high praise for Warhawks quarterback Jeff Donovan, who was 26 of 40 for 323 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Donovan did most of his damage in the first half, when he was 17 of 22 for 224 yards and helped the Warhawks convert all nine third-down opportunities.
“He made every third-down play in the first half,” Kehres said. “We couldn't get off the field.”
But as he and son Vince Kehres, the defensive coordinator, have been known to do, Mount Union made the perfect adjustments in the second half. Walking up their corners for press man coverage, mixing in zone help over the top, and changing up their normal 4-2-5 alignment by showing 3-3-5 and six-defensive backs at times, the Purple Raiders forced Whitewater to go 1 of 9 on third down in the second half, igniting the faithful in the crowd of 3,468.
That gave Mount Union an opportunity to get back in the game, first with a 23-yard Kurt Rocco-to-Cecil Shorts touchdown pass, and later on a 5-yard Rocco scramble. Herm Timmersjo's point-after tied the game at 28 with 12:08 left.
UW-Whitewater, which scored touchdowns on its first four possessions and didn't punt until the second half, went three-and-out twice and four-and-out once in three fourth-quarter possessions with the score tied. Two of Mount Union's three possessions with the game tied ended with Terrance Morring fumbles, and a third, which that started with 5:00 left, ended with a Lane Olson sack.
Whitewater then leaned on its best offensive player.
Coppage ran for 11 and four yards before Donovan found Aaron Rusch crossing the field for a 14-yard again. Two plays later, Coppage recognized a line stunt, bounced an inside run outside the tackles, and beat Mount Union cornerback Ryan Renbarger in a race to the goal line.
“We know at any time a big play can happen,” Coppage said. And in a game where the big plays came fast and furiously in the first half, then dried up with better defensive play in the second half, his 31-yard scoring run made the difference.
Rocco, with a chance for a career-defining drive like one he led in regular season at Capital, threw behind A.J. Claycomb, missed Shorts down the field – Shorts was well-covered by Olson, a linebacker – and then connected with Shorts for a short gain.
On fourth down, Wesley Hicks stripped Rocco as he stepped up in the pocket, and UW-Whitewater linebacker Kyle Supianoski recovered. The Warhawks added a 44-yard Jeff Schebler field goal for the final margin.
Supianoski found it hard to put into words what the victory meant, saying it was greater than he'd ever imagined. Donovan, who missed spring practices and baseball season to focus on academics, didn't consider it personal redemption, just a dream come true.
“I really didn't think about last year, except for a few days after the game,” Donovan said of the 31-26 loss in Salem in 2008. “This season was a totally new mission. We went 15-0, you can tell we were focused on winning one game at a time.”
Whitewater, featuring 18 players who started last season's Stagg Bowl, moved the ball as they did in 2008, but finished this time. They came away with touchdowns on all four trips inside the red zone, while drawing just four penalties, turning it over once and not giving up a single sack. Mount Union's Joseph Millings was inactive for the game, but the UW-Whitewater line still neutralized defensive linemen James Herbert, Lambert Budzinski, Clantz Liggett and Matt Williamson.
Mount Union outgained the Warhawks, 471-467, but Whitewater outrushed the Purple Raiders 144-88 and averaged 3.9 yards per carry to Mount Union's 2.8. The Purple Raiders lost three fumbles, all in the second half, but had the game tied for the majority of the fourth quarter after a dubious start.
“I'm proud of my team,” Kehres said. “They battled back, and played with heart and dignity.”
Kehres also said if he had an MVP vote, it would have gone to Shorts, who despite the Warhawks' rolled coverages, hauled in 10 passes for a game-high 185 yards and two scores. The D3football.com Offensive Player of the Year came into the postgame news conference on crutches.
“He's a very talented athlete, we knew we'd have our hands full,” said Leipold of Shorts. “I thought [defensive coordinator Brian] Borland had a good plan to contain him, but I don't think you're ever going to stop him.”
Coppage, who carried 22 times for 113 yards and three touchdowns, proved unstoppable himself, earning Most Outstanding Players honors. Rusch added eight catches for 109 yards and a leaping touchdown.
Leipold said his team, going back to unspecified instances in the spring, said his team showed a lot of drive to get back to Salem, and unselfishness in doing so.
“They couldn't care less who got the stats,” Leipold said. “They didn't put up a lot of eye-popping individual numbers, but they were a great team, and that's the kind of team I want to associate myself with and be in charge of.”
Leipold, a quarterback under Bob Berezowitz and native of the Southeastern Wisconsin area, has now earned a second Walnut and Bronze for his alma mater. In the past five seasons, the UW-Whitewater program has stood up to Division III's premier dynasty. Nothing about Saturday's toe-to-toe tussle was a surprise on either side.
In fact, the only upset was that the City of Salem got the game played at all. With 18 inches of snow hitting the Roanoke Valley between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, it took an all-night field-clearing effort, plus a switch from an 11 a.m. kickoff to a 4 p.m. start, to get the game to go off. But by the time the first pass was thrown, Donovan, a Wisconsin native, called the conditions “perfect.”
And for every Warhawk player, coach and fan, so was the ending.