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Perseverance pays off for Wittenberg

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When Denison kicker Connor Dunn’s 33-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 21 seconds left, Wittenberg thought that was it for the season.

The boot gave the Big Red a 24-21 triumph – its first over the Tigers since 1989. It knocked Wittenberg out of first place.

There goes an NCAC championship. See ya later, playoff berth – right?

Fortunately for the Tigers, they regrouped and gained a new perspective. It was the middle of the season and plenty of things could happen.

Those things definitely did. Denison, DePauw and Wabash all suffered losses, which opened the door back up for Wittenberg. The Tigers stormed through it to claim the outright championship and playoff berth.

“Anytime you are able to win a conference championship, it is an honor,” Wittenberg senior receiver Luke Landis said. “To be able to be in the NCAA Tournament and represent the NCAC is an honor.”

Wittenberg’s season could have spiraled downward following the setback at Denison. Instead, the Tigers became more motivated.

“Starting off the year, we got two big wins against Wabash and DePauw and then we lost to Denison for the first time in more than 20 years. We were all kinds of shell shocked. That last-second field goal really took the air out of us,” Landis said. “The big thing is, we realized the cards weren’t in our hands after that loss and we’d need help from people we don’t usually root for. We were all about controlling what we could control. And, fortunately, the cards fell the right way and we got into the NCAA tourney and won a championship. Being able to regroup and do what we did was special.”

Wittenberg was dominant down the stretch. The Tigers blew past Hiram, Oberlin, Kenyon and Allegheny by a 185-28 margin to wrap up their schedule. During that run, they saw Wabash knock off Denison and DePauw beat Wabash to give those three squads 7-2 NCAC records to their 8-1 finish.  

“The biggest thing we were looking for was controlling what we could control. We couldn’t control what Wabash, Denison or DePauw would do. We worked hard at practice and had great study habits when watching film. It was very nerve-racking. Week in and week out, it was hard to put it in the back of your mind and not look at the other games and root for other teams,” Landis said. “The way things went, I don’t think anyone expected it. What we needed to happen is exactly what happened. Saturday with DePauw beating Wabash for the first time in a while in the Monon Bell Classic, that gave us outright the championship that was pretty crazy as well. The whole season was crazy in the NCAC.”

The Tigers (9-1) turned their attention to Thomas More (9-1), their first round opponent. They hope their offense, which features sophomore quarterback Jake Kennedy, sophomore running back DeShawn Sarley and freshman running back Nick Kendall, can find some consistency.

Meanwhile, Wittenberg’s defense ranks first in the NCAC and second in the nation in points allowed at 9.6 per game.

“If you look at all the big games we played, we’ve had our struggles on offense. At times, we’ve been up and down,” Landis said. “To have a defense like we do, it’s huge. It’s played a big role in the success of our team this year.”

The Tigers hope to keep their momentum going against the Saints.

“It’ll be a tough challenge, but when you’re one of 32 teams left, they’re all tough challenges. We’re ready to get after it,” Landis said.

Game of the Week

John Carroll 31, Mount Union 28: The Blue Streaks pulled off the stunner in Alliance, Ohio, to claim their first outright OAC title since 1989. It snapped Mount Union’s regular-season winning streak at 112 games, which dated back to Oct. 22, 2005. John Carroll rallied from a 21-13 deficit after three quarters. The teams combined for three scores in the final 5:13. The Blue Streaks got the winning touchdown with 39 seconds left.

Going dancing

The first round of the playoffs features four teams from the Great Lakes matched up in head-to-head battles: John Carroll welcomes Olivet, while Wittenberg visits Thomas More. Mount Union is on the other side of the bracket and travels to Hobart.

In the polls

No. 6 John Carroll (9-1) rocketed up 10 spots after its 31-28 win at Mount Union to claim the OAC title. The Blue Streaks welcome Olivet to open the playoffs.

No. 7 Mount Union (9-1) dropped six places after the defeat to John Carroll. The Purple Raiders find themselves in unfamiliar postseason territory – hitting the road for a game at Hobart.

No. 15 Thomas More (9-1) was idle and dipped two spots. The Saints wrapped up yet another PAC title and meet Wittenberg to open playoff action.

No. 17 Wittenberg (9-1) climbed two places after cruising past Allegheny, 45-8. The Tigers visit Thomas More on Saturday.

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Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
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