December 18, 2010

Coppage carries UWW to Stagg Bowl repeat

Levell Coppage broke through for three touchdowns in Stagg Bowl XXXVIII.
Photo by Ryan Tipps, d3photography.com

By Ryan Tipps
D3football.com

SALEM, Va. -- From downfield, all that was visible was a wall of black-clad Mount Union defenders, an imposing sight that seemed to box in the UW-Whitewater rushing attack.

But then, the white No. 33 jersey broke through. Over the course of 75 yards, the gap between him and his opponents lengthened. There was no catching Levell Coppage.

The junior All-American sealed the Warhawks’ third Stagg Bowl victory in four years with just 2:34 left in the game. The UW-W coaching staff leaped into the air. The purple stands on the far side erupted in a deafening roar.

By the score of 31-21, UW-W became the undisputed champion of Division III.

What was going through his mind as he capped a performance that set a Stagg Bowl rushing record? He said three questions rattled about: Was I going fast enough; should I zig-zag; and was there anyone behind him?

The bottom line, though, “I was just hoping to get [to the end zone] before anyone tackled me,” he said.

Coppage’s effort was part of a bookend of breakaway runs. In the first quarter, he scored the first touchdown of the game with a 54-yard scamper, an overall performance worthy enough to earn him his second-straight Stagg Bowl most valuable player honor.

In a press briefing after the game, Mount Union coach Larry Kehres called Coppage a patient runner – with bite.

“He’ll wait until he sees a gap in the defense, and then he’s explosive,” Kehres said. “He can start and accelerate so tremendously in the first 5 or 6 yards, then ‘poof,’ he gone.”

The electricity that charged through the UW-W stands was mirrored in somber fashion on the UMU side. As the final minutes waned, Mount fans tried to breathe warmth into their hands amid the brisk Salem air, silently shaking their heads in disappointment. Three cheerleaders hugged, as one wrinkled her face with emotion and fought back tears. And after the clock ticked away, most Purple Raiders players kept their helmets on, a sure way to hide their sadness. Cecil Shorts knelt on the field and watched the victors celebrate.

Because while tears meant one thing for Mount Union, they meant quite another for Whitewater. Warhawk players cried with joy on the field. Quarterback Lee Brekke and linebacker Max Ford jumped into each other’s arms. Cornerback Matt McCulloch and linebacker Lance Olson got celebratory slaps from head coach Lance Leipold. The mood echoed the payoff that the hard-fought game deserved.

Tyler Huber got turned around and was off-balance but made a touchdown catch to give UW-Whitewater a 24-21 lead going to the break. The Warhawk defense made that stand up.

As in every other Stagg Bowl meeting between these two teams, the winner broke 30 points. But unlike games past, this one saw a flurry of points during the first half and a near-shutout after the break. Mount Union made its way on the board with three touchdowns in a short four-minute span in the second quarter. Shorts hauled in a 58-yard reception and had wide running room to the end zone. For another, All-American defensive end Lambert Budzinski intercepted a pass from Brekke and set up an easy score by returning it down to the Whitewater 4 yard line.

“We were excited when we scored the first 21 points and how fast we did it,” said Mount Union quarterback Matt Piloto. “But we knew we were going to have to keep going.”

After those quick scores, “I think we were able to regroup and kind of stick together and trust our game plan and trust our coaches and just keep playing hard,” said UW-W safety Steven McCollom.

In all, few scoring drives on Saturday were sustained. Most relied on big plays and acrobatic performances to add to the scoreboard’s tally.

Coppage, who had 299 yards and three touchdowns, made sure he kept adding points. He credited his team’s work during practice for helping him reach that mark. He said he got great looks and he knew exactly where he was going to go on many plays.

Winning, he said, was very satisfying. “This is why we play the championship. This is why we work hard.”

Leipold, Whitwater’s coach, echoed that sentiment. “It’s not an accident. The practice, the conditioning: All of those things have paid off for these guys.” Those are the things he can control, he said. It’s not worth worrying about the things he can’t.

Whitewater clearly took control in the second half. Brekke said about that point in the game, “We just took the game over with our philosophy of pound the rock.”

Luke Hibner, a UW-W defensive lineman who had a sack and six tackles, pointed out that “the entire season, our defensive unit has been a second-half team. We just locked down in the second half. I don’t think we don’t try to do that on purpose, it just naturally happens.”

Not that Mount didn’t try to throw Whitewater off its game. Piloto stepped off the field for a couple of series, and Shorts channeled the snaps he took in practice and brought the Wildcat offense to the field. He completed five passes on seven attempts for 56 yards. He also gain 28 yards running from the formations.

But Shorts faced a lot of what Piloto had faced for much of the rest of the game. Whitewater is a fast team defensively. They’re sound. And they don’t make a lot of mistakes, Piloto said.

Leipold, who is in his fourth year as the head coach at Whitewater, said he was particularly proud of this team because these are the guys he started with as freshmen.

“They came into this program when there was transition,” he said. “They didn’t know exactly what was going to happen with the program. He said he told them, “You win this game today, you will be the class that every Warhawk football class will be compared to.”

Brekke, who threw for 121 yards, played the entire game at quarterback, as he had done this whole 2010 postseason, after regular-season starter Matt Blanchard broke his thumb. After the game, though, Blanchard celebrated and showed no outward disappointment at not playing. He, like everyone else on the sidelines, was proud of those who played tough.

Winning the Stagg Bowl for the third time since 2007, McCulloch said, “It’s unreal, it’s awesome.”

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