November 5, 2011

Wabash Claims NCAC Title With Win Over Wittenberg

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12-66-238. Numbers seldom tell the story of any athletic contest and often trivialize meaningful results. Wabash dominated Wittenberg Saturday with physical defense and a punishing run attack for a 28-17 championship win. The Little Giants will be in the NCAA playoffs in two weeks and are the 2011 NCAC Conference Champions.

Those numbers play out to 12 rushing first downs, 66 carries, and 238 rushing yards.

"They're really good on defense, particularly in the secondary," Coach Erik Raeburn said. "We knew we'd have to run the football to have a chance. We ran a lot better in the first half than even I thought we could.

"But the defense was the big key. I've got tremendous respect for how good their quarterback and receivers are. To hold them to 10 points, with the screw-ups coming on our special teams for their last score, that was an impressive defensive performance by our guys."

The Little Giant defense was stellar against Witt quarterback Ben Zoeller holding him to 15-of-27 passing for 146 yards. They picked off one and sacked him four times. But the defense blitzed, blitzed and blitzed some more putting a body on Zoeller nearly every throw.

"Last year he torched us," Raeburn said. "But just like every quarterback, when you get hit every time it's hard to make accurate throws."

The rushing numbers were staggering. Wabash's 238 yards looked all the more glaring beside the Tigers' 10 net yards.

"Running the ball is always the key," said junior offensive lineman Weston Kitley. "If you can control the line of scrimmage, like everybody says, you can control the game. They're an all-around great team. Every year they're a great team. We knew we had to come out with a lot more intensity than we have the last 4-5 weeks. We came out ready to play. We had too many mental errors again today but they did a lot of confusing things. We just did a good job of picking most of it up."

Tyler Holmes had a career day with 111 yards on 19 rushes. Vann Hunt added 85 on 22 carries. Chase Belton had 88 yards on 20 carries.

The defense set the Little Giants up for their first score when C.J. Gum delivered a crushing blow to Zoeller that caused an errant pass picked off by freshman Cody Brush. Wabash kept the ball on the ground capped by Belton's one-yard plunge, 7-0. The Little Giants got their second score of the game on a five-rush-play drive capped by Belton's four-yard fun, 14-0.

On the next series the defense forced a three-and-out and Wabash was on the run again. Five rushing plays moved the ball to the Witt 21. Belton found a streaking Wes Chamblee crossing through the end zone for a 21-0 halftime edge.

Witt put two scores up in the third quarter on Corey Weber's five-yard run and Sean Williams' 42-yard field goal.

The Little Giants got their first wrapped around the NCAC championship trophy with seven minutes to play. The defense forced two incomplete passes then smothered Zoeller for a 12-yard sack. Trey LaValley had to punt from near his goal line. Kyle Najar flew in from a corner, blocked the punt which was picked up in the end zone by Hildebrand for a touchdown.

"I knew I had an edge on that right tackle I'd blocked before," Najar said. "I was setting him up because I was calling it out like I was blocking him. I just got past him and whacked it. I saw the ball bounced and Sean was there to pick it up. I knew I was going to block it for some reason."

Hildebrand knew he was in the right place at the right time. "We called an all-out punt block," he explained. "I was on outside contain and Kyle made a great play to get the block. It was a gift from God when the ball bounced right to me."

Witt picked up a late score with three minutes to play when a Little Giant snap sailed way over the head of the Wabash punter. The ball was picked up by Mike McKee and returned 25 yards to cap the scoring, 28-17.

Wabash wins the NCAC championship outright for the first time since 2008 and earns the league's automatic berth for the NCAA Championships. The unbeaten Little Giants 9-0 travel to DePauw Saturday for 118th battle for the Monon Bell. The Tigers are 4-4 after Saturday's win over Albion.

Wittenberg, 7-2, must face Wooster to close its season.

"To win a conference championship, we're going to the playoffs, those are all great things," Raeburn said. We'll enjoy it tonight and then we have to get ready for the Bell Game."

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