|After getting knocked around a bit the first two weeks of the playoffs, the UW-Whitewater defense has allowed just 17 points in the past two games.|
For the fourth consecutive week, UW-Whitewater didn't have Matt
Blanchard at quarterback. But once again, it didn't matter. Both
the Warhawk offense and defense were clicking on Saturday as the
defense intercepted five passes, including three picks in four
Justin Sottilare pass attempts, to pull away to a 27-7 win.
With Lee Brekke at quarterback, the Warhawks (14-0) drove to the 1-yard line before having to settle for a 19-yard Eric Kindler field goal, which got tipped at the line but still had enough to make it through the uprights, to put UW-W on the board with 8:01 left in the first.
Taking advantage of field position, Wesley began a drive later in the quarter on its own 45. On the third play of the mini-drive, Wesley quarterback Justin Sottilare found Matt Barile with a 38-yard scoring toss. Barile's first touchdown of the season, and just his fifth catch of the season, put Wesley in front 7-3 with 1:08 on the clock.
"They were playing man coverage and we had a good play call," Barile said. "Justin made a good throw and I just ran under it and caught it. It gave us the lead and I thought a good shot to win."
UW-W answered on the next drive, traveling 72 yards on six plays, with Brekke connecting with Adam-Brandes for a 35 yard score, making it 10-7 Whitewater with 13:24 left in the half.
The Warhawk defense forced a three-and-out, and its offense began marching again. Wesley ended the drive with a Jeff Morgan interception at the Wesley 22. The UW-W defense responded in kind, with defensive back Jared Kiesow picking off a Wesley pass at the 16, and he returned it to the Whitewater 34. UW-W moved the ball 24 yards on three plays, but Morgan picked off his second Warhawk pass of the day at Wesley's 32.
The teams went in to the locker room with a halftime score of 10-7 Whitewater.
Neither team scored in the third period until a Matt McCulloch interception set up a run by Levell Coppage with 3:25 left in the quarter. The Wolverines turned the ball over again and Coppage plunged in from the one for a 24-7 lead through three quarters of action.
"There were turnovers on our part and there were turnovers on their part and that's what happens in games like this," UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said after the game. "It was a very good defense (for Wesley). ... At this stage we're just happy to get out with a win."
UW-W turned to its offensive line and the Coppage offense, much like the second half in the win over North Central last week, handing the ball off to the junior running back eight consecutive plays, ending with a one yard touchdown run to put the Warhawks in front 17-7 with 3:25 left in the third.
Deja vu for Wesley, because Sottilare was picked off on its first play after the kickoff, this time by linebacker Greg Arnold who made it from the Whitewater 36 to the one yard line. Sottilare had thrown four passes in this span, with three of them picked off by the Warhawks. Coppage walked in on the next play to make it 24-7 with 3:01 left in the third, giving UW-W 14 points in 24 seconds.
The next time they had the ball the Wolverines drove to the Whitewater 26, but lost yardage to the 33 and failed on a fourth and nine attempt.
Whitewater's final score ended a seven play, 56 yard drive, highlighted by a 32 yard run by Coppage. Kindler booted his second field goal of the day, this time from 28 yards with 10:01 left in the game and UW-W leading 27-7.
Wesley continued to come back, advancing to the Whitewater 8, but a Wesley Hicks sack pushed the Wolverines back to the 19, where Sottilare threw his fifth interception of the day with Kiesow picking off his second in the end zone.
The five interceptions are the most by UW-W since the Warhawks picked off eight UW-Superior passes in 1982.
The Warhawk defense limited Wesley to minus-7 yards rushing, the fourth time this season that UW-W has held an opponent to negative yards rushing. Whitewater, behind 146 yards by Coppage, rushed for 172 yards. Wesley made up some of the difference passing, throwing the ball 44 times for 256 yards.
"The run wasn't a big part of our game plan," said Wesley coach Mike Drass. "I mean, you look at who has run the ball on them this year and the answer is no one. We thought we could move the ball through the air. We'd have liked to have run the ball better, but we also didn't plan to run the ball 40 times either."
Brekke went 13-for-19 passing for 144 yards, one TD and two interceptions. Senior wide receiver Aaron Rusch led both teams with six catches for 64 yards. Sottilare was 24-for-43 for 256 yards, one TD and the five picks. Sophomore tailback Brandon Wright was on the receiving end of five of those passes for 62 yards.
Linebacker Lane Olson topped the Warhawks with four solo tackles, five assists and one tackle for a loss. Wolverine senior safety Aaron Benson had a game ten tackles, eight of them solo. Morgan was one of four players with seven tackles on the afternoon, intercepted two passes and broke up another.
With 12 wins this season, the Wolverines are 25-2 the past two years, the third best mark in Division III, but couldn't get over the hump in the national semifinals for the fourth time in six seasons.
"UW-Whitewater, there weren't any chinks (in their armor)," said Drass. "You don't get out there and say 'ah hah, here's where we're going to attack them.' You gotta outplay them.
"I think there are some teams out there that are real close but you gotta perform."
UW-Whitewater will meet Mount Union in Salem, Va., for the national championship, next Saturday, Dec. 18. "This is the sixth year in a row. It's not as easy as it might appear to people on the outside," said Leipold. "It's an honor every year to get there and have a chance to compete for a national championship. We definitely don't take it for granted."