Knight and day difference for Wartburg

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Brandon Domeyer rolled up 161 yards on the ground in the first-round win at Illinois Wesleyan.
Wartburg athletics file photo by Julie Drewes

By Josh Smith

Wartburg’s journey to the IIAC title hit a speed bump earlier this month with a loss to conference rival Coe. But since that loss, the Knights have used a strong ground game and a stingy defense to make their way into the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Now, after thumping Illinois Wesleyan 41-7 in the first round Saturday, Wartburg will try to avenge its only non-conference loss of the season when the Knights travel to Bethel for a second-round game.

“What coach was really stressing is what makes a team great is how well they bounce back from a loss,” said sophomore running back Brandon Domeyer, who rushed for 161 yards in Saturday’s playoff win. “I think we’ve really been taking that mentality to practice and (are) working hard every day to try and get better.”

After the loss at home to Coe, Wartburg picked up a 16-14 win over Central and a 59-3 win at Loras to wrap up the conference title and earn an automatic berth into the postseason.

“The biggest thing, I think, is our team has just continued to fight and play hard regardless if things are going well or if they’re not going well,” head coach Rick Willis said. “That’s a trait that teams learn, and we’re fortunate that this team has learned how to do that.”

The Knights carried that momentum into the postseason, where they raced out to a 35-0 lead en route to picking up their first playoff win since 2008.

Domeyer scored three touchdowns in the victory over the Titans and quarterback Logan Schrader added 76 yards two scores on the ground.

“All the credit goes to the offensive line. All I really had to do was take the ball and run it,” Domeyer said after his team racked up 274 yards on the ground. “They played a great game.”

Meanwhile the Wartburg defense held Illinois Wesleyan to minus-5 yards rushing and forced seven turnovers.

“Obviously, turnovers are huge. Our defense has really been gaining a lot confidence in the past month – the past five or six weeks, really,” said Willis, whose team intercepted four passes and recovered three fumbles. “They’ve really kind of hit their stride. They’ve kind of carried us through a few big games down the stretch here.”

With the solid play on both sides of the ball, the Knights’ coach is optimistic about the way his team is playing headed into its second round matchup at sixth-ranked Bethel.

“Throughout the year there’s been times where we’ve played pretty well offensively and other times where we’ve played pretty well defensively,” Willis said. “We really had yet to put together what we felt was our best in all three phases on the same day. And I think we came as close to doing that over at Illinois Wesleyan last Saturday as we have all year.

“So hopefully, we can continue that and that will give us confidence moving forward.”

Wartburg would like to get off to a quick start again Saturday when they travel to Arden Hills to take on the Royals.

“Momentum is such a big part of these games, and getting off to a good start is a big part of that,” Willis said.

When the Royals won their non-conference meeting with Wartburg in September, they got off to the fast start. Bethel scored 30 straight points en route to a 30-17 victory.

“At that point in the season, we were a pretty inexperienced team, I would say,” Domeyer said. “We’ve gained a lot more experience. I think we’ve gotten a lot better as a team.”

Bethel, which is 11-0 and has won its games by an average margin of 29 points, is the favorite to win Saturday following a 70-13 win over St. Scholastica. But Willis said people may have overlooked his team when matched up with Illinois Wesleyan.

“There weren’t a lot of people outside of our locker room that were giving us much of a chance,” Willis said. “I think anytime you’re in the playoffs, you’re always trying to earn respect for your school and for your conference, and that was certainly something that was on our guys’ mind.”

The coach said his team is excited to still be alive and is looking forward to an opportunity to atone for its regular season loss at Bethel.

“We have a chance to try to redeem ourselves,” Willis said. “I think they are fully aware of the tremendous challenge that Bethel will present to us, and are excited about the opportunity to go up and see how much we’ve progressed since the 14th of September.”

“We need to get off to a better start. We need to do a better job of controlling the turnover situation,” he continued. “We’ve certainly got to tackle better. Our tackling was not very good up there early in the season.”