/playoffs/2012/wittenberg-win-or-else

For Wittenberg, it's win or else

More news about: Wittenberg
Wittenberg, including receiver Desi Kirkman, didn't give up when down by 22 points.
Wittenberg athletics photo

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

If you take a moment and understand the mentality of the Wittenberg football team, you begin to see why perhaps the wild and thrilling 52-38 comeback win over Heidelberg in the opening round of the Division III playoffs isn’t so crazy after all.

Yes, to overcome a 22-point deficit in the playoffs, against an Ohio Athletic Conference opponent on the road no less, is no easy task, but the Tigers (10-1) have been in win-or-else mode since losing to North Coast Athletic Conference rival Wabash in the middle of the season.

“We’ve been like a band of brothers and have taken the approach of it’s us against everyone else,” said senior kicker Sean Williams, one of the top kickers in program history and a nominee for the Fred Mitchell Award. “We are a tight group and we have been focused. I think it made a difference for us on Saturday. We were very resilient and it was an exciting game to win.”

The Tigers trailed 21-3 early and were in a 31-13 hole at halftime. Williams, who had two brothers play for Wittenberg as well, accounted for six of the points in the first half, including three on a 41-yard field goal in the opening quarter. It was his first field goal of the year from 40-plus yards.

Coach Joe Fincham has been at Wittenberg for nearly 20 years. He has been a part of a lot of big wins since taking the job in 1996 after six years as an assistant. This is the ninth time Fincham has taken the Tigers to the playoffs, although this trip seemed destined to end quickly considering the way the first half played out.

“We didn’t get off to a good start, and part of that was a credit to Heidelberg and part of that was the fact that we put ourselves in bad situations,” Fincham said. “I got text messages asking me if I had someone record my halftime speech, but I told them they would be disappointed because it wasn’t anything special. Most of the fire and brimstone talk came from the players. My message to them was to just keep playing hard until the end.”

Turns out, the Tigers took the message to heart and looked like a different team in the final 30 minutes.

Heidelberg scored only one touchdown in the second half and was limited to 138 yards. The Tigers’ offense roared to life, as Wittenberg beat an OAC team in the playoffs for the first time since 1978.

Williams started things off with a 29-yard field goal before Reed Florence shredded the Student Princes for four touchdown passes, including a 2-yard scoring strike to Desi Kirkman to give the Tigers their first lead at 38-31 early in the fourth quarter.

Florence went 31 of 49 for 346 yards, the second-best performance in program history, and Kirkman caught 10 passes for 104 yards. Brendon Cunningham caught eight passes for 94 yards and three scores.

Heath Eby sealed the deal for the Tigers when he returned an interception 60 yards for a score, catapulting Wittenberg into a second-round showdown with Hobart on Saturday.

“We had better field position in the second half and we got turnovers. Those two things help you win football games,” Fincham said. “I also thought our quarterback got hot at the right time. He made some big plays with his arm and his feet and our defense came up with some timely plays. The momentum started to shift. It put pressure on them and made it easier for us to play.”

But shifting the momentum in a pressure-packed playoff game isn’t easy. It’s not as if the Tigers were up against some pushover near the bottom of a conference. Heidelberg, making its first appearance in the playoffs, was the second best team in the OAC, its only loss a 33-14 setback to top-ranked Mount Union.

“I’ve been in the playoffs nine times as a head coach here and I’ve seen our teams win and lose games every way known to man,” Fincham said. “When you fall behind against a team in the playoffs, it is very tough to try and come back. Sometimes when you try to catch up, you end up further behind. Our guys never quit. They believed in themselves and found a way to win.”

As a senior, the win was extra special for Williams, who is 11 of 13 on field goals and 51 of 54 on point-after attempts this year. He holds school records for consecutive field goals (19) and PATs (50).

Williams admits there was a little pressure on him, especially in the first half when points were tough to come by for the Tigers.

“There is always a little pressure on you as a kicker, especially when you are losing and you need points,” Williams said. “But I credit the coaching staff for trusting in me to make those field goals. I was glad I could hit them.”

Off the field, Williams is a volunteer for youth football camps in his hometown of Plainfield, Ind., and at Wittenberg. He is also a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and at the Springfield Regional Medical Center. Williams has even worked as an intern at Rocking Horse Community Health Center.

“I was a backup as a freshman, but I got to travel and experience the trip up to Wisconsin-Whitewater for the playoffs,” Williams said. “It was tough losing to Ohio Northern in the playoffs my sophomore year because we had a great (regular) season. To not make it last year was a disappointment. It fueled the motivation for this year.  We were driven to get back to the playoffs.”

The playoff dream almost died, however, as the Tigers suffered a 27-24 loss at home to Wabash in the fifth game of the year. Wittenberg trailed 13-3 at the half but nearly rallied for the win.

The Tigers maintained a fighter's mentality, though, and never lost again, rattling off five consecutive wins to close the regular season and clinch a share of the NCAC championship and a playoff berth thanks to winning a tiebreaker with Ohio Wesleyan.

“It was a tough loss, especially to a rival, but we got back to playing good football again,” Fincham said. “We knew to have a chance at the playoffs we had to win out. Our guys played hard and really grew up. Now, we are playing with house money. We have to put the Heidelberg game behind us and get ready to play a very good Hobart team. All we can do is play our best and see what happens.”

Hobart is unbeaten at 11-0 after rolling to a 38-20 win over Washington and Lee in its first playoff game.

Playing on the road won’t be easy, but the Tigers know that if they can play up to their potential, a trip to the national quarterfinals will become a reality late Saturday afternoon.

“We just have to stay focused and be ready to play for 60 minutes,” Williams said. “We have a good tradition here at Wittenberg. We expect to have success in the playoffs and hopefully we can play good enough to get another win. We want to keep this going as long as possible.”

Oct. 13: All times Eastern
Final
Bridgewater State 24, at Mass-Dartmouth 22
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Final
at UW-Whitewater 21, UW-La Crosse 14
Video Box Score Recap
Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
Salve Regina 45, at Nichols 10
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Final
Mount Ida 14, at Dean 7
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Final
at Thomas More 59, Waynesburg 7
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Final
at Maine Maritime 34, Coast Guard 16
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Final
at Finlandia 27, Trinity Bible 21
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Final
Hamilton 28, at Bowdoin 7
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Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Olivet 47, Albion 26
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Final
at Wesleyan 41, Bates 23
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Final
Union 27, at Rochester 0
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Final
Amherst 40, at Colby 7
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Final
at Western New England 41, Endicott 14
Video Video Box Score Recap
Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
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Final - OT
at Plymouth State 16, Framingham State 13
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Final
at RPI 27, Ithaca 14
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Final
Hobart 49, at Hartwick 27
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Final
at Ferrum 34, LaGrange 20
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Final
at Carnegie Mellon 42, Geneva 27
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Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
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Final
DePauw 26, at Denison 17
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Final
at Trine 42, Kalamazoo 7
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Final
at Washington and Lee 47, Guilford 26
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Final
at Husson 49, Castleton 0
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Final
Gallaudet 35, at Alfred State 19
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Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
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Final
Brevard 41, at Methodist 17
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Final
at Lebanon Valley 31, Stevenson 24
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Final
Buffalo State 24, at St. Lawrence 21
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Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
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Final
at Randolph-Macon 52, Emory and Henry 29
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Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
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Final
at Hampden-Sydney 58, Apprentice 28
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Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
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Final
at N.C. Wesleyan 45, Greensboro 0
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Final
at Westminster (Pa.) 49, Grove City 27
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Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
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Final
at Westminster (Mo.) 56, Crown 15
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Final
at Northwestern (Minn.) 29, Iowa Wesleyan 7
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at Knox 56, Grinnell 14
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Final
at Widener 31, Lycoming 17
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Final
Trinity (Conn.) 23, at Tufts 16
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Final
at Mount St. Joseph 66, Earlham 7
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Final - 2OT
Ohio Northern 27, at John Carroll 20
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Final
Baldwin Wallace 23, at Muskingum 20
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Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
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Final
Rose-Hulman 44, at Manchester 13
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Final
at Hanover 31, Bluffton 28
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Final
Defiance 45, at Anderson 0
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Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
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Final
Hiram 62, at Kenyon 56
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Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
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Final
Williams 27, at Middlebury 26
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Final
at Westfield State 33, Fitchburg State 21
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Final
Marietta 43, at Wilmington 33
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Final
at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
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Final
Curry 40, at Becker 0
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Final
TCNJ 20, at Rowan 14
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Final
at SUNY-Maritime 51, Anna Maria 15
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Final
Salisbury 28, at Montclair State 10
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Final
at Huntingdon 28, Maryville (Tenn.) 16
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Final
at Austin 33, Millsaps 19
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
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Final
at Washington U. 55, Buena Vista 20
Video Video Box Score Recap
Final
Alma 27, at Aurora 19
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Final
at Rockford 29, Concordia-Chicago 14
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Final
Wisconsin Lutheran 22, at Concordia (Wis.) 19
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Final
at Lakeland 57, Benedictine 21
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Final
at St. Norbert 10, Chicago 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
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Final
St. Olaf 22, at Augsburg 20
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Final
Bethel 24, at Gustavus Adolphus 3
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Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Eureka 30, Greenville 19
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Final
Centre 27, at Trinity (Texas) 21
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Final
Dubuque 42, at Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Final
Central 30, at Coe 19
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Final
Lake Forest 56, at Cornell 28
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Final
at Carthage 31, Elmhurst 8
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Millikin 28, at Augustana 27
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Final
Ripon 52, at Beloit 28
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Final
MacMurray 49, at Minnesota-Morris 13
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Final
Macalester 21, at Lawrence 18
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Final
at Monmouth 59, Illinois College 14
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Final
at UW-Stevens Point 26, UW-Eau Claire 3
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Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
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Final
at Wooster 38, Oberlin 28
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Final
Texas Lutheran 41, at East Texas Baptist 34
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Final
at UW-Stout 21, UW-River Falls 16
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
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Final
Sewanee 34, at Birmingham-Southern 13
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Final
at Hope 22, Adrian 3
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Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Cancelled
La Verne at Occidental
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Final
Whitworth 17, at Pacific Lutheran 14
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Final
at Cal Lutheran 42, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 20
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
at Pacific 35, Puget Sound 27
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Final
Pomona-Pitzer 45, at Whittier 23
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Final
at Western Connecticut 28, Massachusetts Maritime 21
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Final
at St. Scholastica 56, Martin Luther 21
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Final - 5OT
at St. John Fisher 39, Utica 36
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Final - OT
at Heidelberg 48, Otterbein 45
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Final
at Shenandoah 38, Bridgewater 20
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Final
Southwestern 60, at Belhaven 31
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
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at Louisiana College 52, McMurry 34
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Final
at Simpson 38, Luther 17
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Final
at Chapman 45, Redlands 26
Video Video Box Score Recap Recap
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Recap Box Score
Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
Box Score Recap Live stats
Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
Video Box Score
Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
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Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
Video Box Score Recap
Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
Video Box Score
Final
at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
Video Box Score Recap Photos
Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
Box Score
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Recap Box Score