Defense lights UW-Whitewater's fire

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UW-Whitewater linebacker Jacob Erbs leaps over a would-be blocker en route to the Concordia-Moorhead quarterback. (Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com)
UW-Whitewater's defense, including linebacker Jacob Erbs, has had a lot of opponents ducking for cover this season.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com

By Joe Sager

The UW-Whitewater defense knows it’s not perfect.

But, the Warhawks strive to be very close to it.

The squad ranks first in the country in scoring defense (4.3 points per game allowed) and continues its climb up the D3football.com Top 25. Entering Saturday’s game at UW-Stout, UW-Whitewater (6-0) is ranked fifth.

That’s quite a turnaround from last season when the Warhawks struggled early and finished a surprising 7-3 and out of the postseason.

“Ever since last season when the scoreboard hit zeroes in the last game, we’ve had something to prove,” Warhawks junior linebacker Jacob Erbs said. “Knowing that we were out of the playoffs, we said that we were going to do whatever we needed to in order to change that and that’s what we’re trying to do every week this year.”

The team, which has reached the quarterfinals 11 times in the past 14 years with six national titles in its trophy case, suffered some growing pains last season. The team opened 2017 with a 1-3 mark, including a crucial 37-20 setback to UW-Oshkosh to open WIAC play, which ultimately cost UW-Whitewater the conference title.

That setback resonated with the Warhawks’ defense, which features many of the same players this fall.

Doin' it with defense

Varsity opponents have averaged just 204.2 yards this season against UW-Whitewater, and 4.3 points per game.

Date Opponent Result Yards
Sept. 1 at Dubuque W, 38-6 186
Sept. 8 Concordia-M'head W, 24-6 204
Sept. 29 at UW-La Crosse W, 30-7 158
Oct. 6 UW-Oshkosh W, 20-0 205
Oct. 13 at UW-Eau Claire W, 45-0 164
Oct. 20 UW-River Falls W, 44-7 308

“A year ago at the beginning of the season, we were extremely immature on defense. We knew it was a talented group, but very few of them had had game reps and they were not what you’d call ‘veterans’ at all,” Warhawks head coach Kevin Bullis said. “In our first four games, we played poor defense. After that Oshkosh game, where the defense got their butts handed to them, those guys started to develop a mission at that point, individually and collectively, to get better every day. You could see it. You could see the energy they practiced with. We played better defense in the fifth game and in the sixth game and so on. Each week, they were a different defense than the previous week. They’ve really continued that mentality.

“They really have this culture where this group just grinds every day. They love practicing together and they practice so well,” he continued. “When you have a group of guys that practices well, you have a chance to win some games on Saturdays. The product of what they’ve been doing is showing on Saturdays.”

The Warhawks have not allowed opponents more than a touchdown per game, so far. The team had its shutout streak stopped at 193 minutes, 55 seconds in last week’s 44-7 win over UW-River Falls.

“We try not to let that distract us but (keeping teams scoreless) really motivates us,” Erbs said. “We didn’t put up a zero last week, so we have work to do.”

Overall, UW-Whitewater ranks sixth in total defense (204.2 yards per game). The team allows 82.8 ypg on the ground and ranks fourth in passing defense (121.3 ypg).

“Our priority is stopping the run, first and foremost. When teams start to air it out on us, we have guys who can go get to the quarterback. We’re very versatile,” Warhawks senior defensive end Harry Henschler said. “Our mentality is that we don’t want anybody to score on us. We want to keep teams out of the end zone and let our offense do what they do. We want to get our offense the ball so they have more time and can go down and score.”

All the low scores are nice, but Bullis has other ways of judging the defense’s progress.


Harry Henschler wraps up one of his 10.5 tackles for loss. (Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com)
Harry Henschler wraps up one of his 10.5 tackles for loss.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com

“We measure ourselves from snap to snap and hold ourselves accountable for all the little things that need to be done. The scoreboard just ends up being a byproduct of what we do,” he said. “There’s a lot to work on, still. Ultimately, it’s about the detail and these guys continuing to develop. Each player has something they have to work on.

“We are all human beings, so having consistent perfection is impossible. If you chase perfection, in the process, you can hit excellence. I am so proud of them. As a coach at any level, when you see your kids continue to get better, it’s so exciting. It’s so thrilling to see. They have not become complacent.”

Henschler, a team captain, has been happy with the defense’s maturation over the past year.

“We’re a lot more experienced this year. I think guys, top to bottom, are more comfortable with what they’re doing. They can play faster and the game gets slower for everybody and everyone can make plays a lot easier,” he said. “Last year definitely motivated everybody. This year, it’s a lot of guys’ last shots, so we’re working extremely hard. Even though we were really disappointed, we knew that, if we trained really hard in the offseason, things would go well. So far, they are.

“It’s been really exciting. We’re really deep, too. We have guys that can play all over. We’re really comfortable with the guys on the field and guys are playing together. We’re a tight-knit group and everyone trusts each other,” he continued. “This team is awesome. We are winning pretty big, but guys are still coming in on Mondays and still working hard. Guys are staying motivated and not getting complacent. We know we have a lot to get better at. But, so far, it’s been a blast.”

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