|Ryan Stefaniak moved from
safety to linebacker before the 2011 season, but it's in 2012 where
he's had a huge impact.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com
By Jason Galleske
Ryan Stefaniak’s world on the gridiron was quite different a season ago.
Stefaniak, now a starting outside linebacker at UW-Oshkosh, was bummed because at the start of the 2010-11 season he was third on the depth chart at strong safety.
Prior to the opener against Central, Stefaniak was asked by coach Pat Cerroni to shift to start at linebacker.
“I didn't know where to line up at all,” Stefaniak said. "All I knew were the base coverages."
Stefaniak learned quickly and eventually earned the starting position for good last season and even added 20 pounds in the offseason in preparation for this year and earned second-team All-WIAC league honors.
Even though the junior is more familiar with the Titans' schemes, he forgot one of them Saturday in a playoff game against Bethel. The Titans were down 14-0 and Stefaniak missed a blitz call that turned into a game-changing play. Stefaniak intercepted Bethel quarterback Erik Peterson and ran 23 yards to set the Titans in great position on the Royals’ 26-yard line. Two plays later, Cole Myhra added a 1-yard touchdown run to get his team on the scoreboard.
“It was a lucky break,” Stefaniak said. “I was glad it worked.”
By the end of the game, Stefaniak had compiled a game-high 13 tackles, including three for a loss of 12 yards, and a pass deflection. Plus, he and fellow linebacker Taylor Goodman brought down a Bethel running back in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter to put the icing on the cake of a 37-14 win.
“He’s definitely a kid that loves to play football,” Cerroni said. “He loves to prepare. He watches more film than anyone on the team.”
Cerroni wasn’t too concerned with him lining up out of place during his key play.
“He knew exactly what was going to happen,” Cerroni said. “It’s an absolute testament to him being a great football player.”
Stefaniak and the rest of the Titans advanced to play at third-ranked Linfield Saturday afternoon in McMinnville, Ore. It’s a place that’s tough to win, as the Wildcats have won 25 straight games at Maxwell Field. They're 15-3 at home in the playoffs.
“We know we’re going into a hornets’ nest,” Cerroni said.
And against another traditional team that dons a winning color scheme.
“What’s the deal with purple uniforms?’" Cerroni quipped. “Maybe we should change our uniforms to purple. The only way you play good football in D-III is to have purple uniforms.”
The black and gold Titans, who are in the playoffs for the first time, know a little about what it’s like to play against top teams that wear purple. UW-Oshkosh plays in the same conference as UW-Whitewater, the three-time defending national champion. They also played a non-conference home-and-home in 2010 and '11 with Mount Union, who has been in the past seven Stagg Bowls. On the way to winning the WIAC, Oshkosh topped Whitewater and snapped the Warhawks’ 27-game conference win streak.
“Playing Whitewater and Mount Union has been the entire difference why we are where we are,” Cerroni said. “You’re not going to shock us.”
The Titans (12-0) know a little bit about winning, as well as they have reeled off 14 straight wins, the longest active streak in college football.
“We're pretty loose, we like to have fun,” Stefaniak said. “We just feel like we don't even know what we're doing. We're watching film and trying to go out and win a football game.”
Stefaniak is one of the core guys on the defense along with seniors Goodman, cornerback Tim Filter and linemen Nathan Smith and Andrew Thompson. Those four earned All-WIAC first-team honors. They anchor a strong senior group that studies well for the task at hand.
“With 14 seniors it does not take us long to get ready,” Cerroni said. “We’ve run the same defenses thousands of times with these same guys. We’re prepared for this.”
The Wildcats boast both of the top players in their conference as quarterback Mickey Inns was the NWC Offensive Player of the Year and linebacker Dominique Forrest earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. Linfield is also the country's best team at sacking the quarterback with 60.
“They have great players, speed and intensity,” Cerroni said.
The Titans continue to make their own history, something that will be remembered. For now, it’s about hopping on a plane for a shade over a 2,000-mile trip to try and continue the dream season for the Titans.
“We're not worried about that right now. Ten years down the road it will be cool to look back at it that we are the first ones,” Stefaniak said. “We're just going to try and enjoy it as we go.”