Familiar foes battle for DIII crown
Wis.-Whitewater, Mount Union meet for sixth consecutive year
Greg Johnson, NCAA.com
SALEM, Va. -- No introductions are necessary for Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union as they prepare to face each other Saturday in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For the sixth consecutive season, the road to the NCAA Division III Football Championship goes through these two teams. In 2005, 2006 and 2008, Mount Union took home the spoils. Wisconsin-Whitewater celebrated national title with victories in 2007 and 2009.
Both teams are 14-0 entering the title game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
The personnel changes each year, but when these two teams look at game film they see the same familiar fast and physical styles of play. Both team’s campuses are full of expectations, but neither Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres and Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold allow their players to think that way.
“You have to coach without letting the expectations of making it here be the preeminent thoughts in the player’s minds," said Kehres, who is 303-22-3 with 10 national titles in 25 years guiding the Purple Raiders. “I have to make sure our team doesn’t get carried away with that.”
Leipold, who is 56-3 in his fourth season at the helm Warhawks, said his team couldn’t afford to think reaching the Stagg Bowl as being a foregone conclusion. Wisconsin-Whitewater had to win 20-10 at North Central (Ill.) in the quarterfinals, and it posted a 27-7 victory at Wesley in the semifinals.
“This has been the toughest road we’ve had to get here,” said Leipold, whose team has won its past 28 games. “We didn’t have time to worry about this game when the playoffs began. We had to worry about each team to get here. But we’re not shocked it’s Mount Union that we’re playing on Saturday.”
Both teams also had a late-season monkey wrenches thrown at them at the quarterback position. Wisconsin-Whitewater starter Mark Blanchard suffered an injury to his throwing hand in the final regular-season game, and sophomore Lee Brekke stepped in to complete 63.7 percent of his passes for 722 yards and 10 touchdowns through four postseason games. Not bad after having only thrown two passes in the entire regular season.
“We were all confident that [Brekke] would do what he needed to do in those games,” Warhawks All-America guard Matt Weber said. “We’re here to do one thing and that’s to play a football game. We know we have to bring our “A” game, because you can’t expect them to make any mistakes.”
Mount Union saw its starting quarterback Neal Seaman suffer a lower leg injury early in the Raiders’ 34-14 semifinal victory against Bethel (Minn.). Sophomore Matt Piloto stepped in to throw for 335 yards and four TDs.
On paper, this looks like another competitive game. Wisconsin-Whitewater is averaging 40.9 points per game, while Mount Union scores at a 39.8 rate.
On defense, the Raiders lead the nation in scoring defense (7.4 points) and total yards allowed (196.6). Senior defensive end Lambert Budzinski leads Mount Union with a team-leading 101 tackles, which includes a school single-season record 17.5 sacks.
“We also come into the playoffs expecting to see the best team,” Budzinski said. “It’s exciting to know the two best teams in Division III are going to be on that field Saturday. The system is set up that we play it out. We both have good competition in our conferences and had to win four games to get to this point. It’s not an easy task, but we’re excited for this game.”
Wisconsin-Whitewater only allows 46.7 yards on the ground, which ranks second in the nation. None of the players on either side needs to know the statistics, because experience tells them they are facing the best competition that Division III football has to offer.
“I would definitely call this a rivalry,” said Wisconsin-Whitewater senior receiver Aaron Rusch, who has 87 receptions for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns. “We’ve definitely got a good thing going between the two teams. You know some of the players because we’ve faced them so much. They are like us. They compete and play to win.”
Since this is the sixth consecutive time these two teams have met with the outcome being the highest a Division III football player can have, there is only one focus. “We not happy to be here,” said Mount Union senior receiver Cecil Shorts, who has 14 touchdowns in his past five games via receiving, rushing, punt returns and a kickoff return. “Leaving with a win is the main goal. We’ll be excited after the game if we win.”
Notes: A snow and ice storm hit the Salem, Va., area on Thursday morning. The weather is expected to clear on Friday, and there is a 20 percent chance of snow for Saturday. Last year, a blizzard postponed kickoff for five hours. … Both coaches are alums and former starting quarterbacks of the teams they are currently leading. Kehres graduated from Mount Union in 1971, and Leipold is a 1987 graduate of Wisconsin-Whitewater. … Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Matt Blanchard is the younger brother of former Mount Union all-American offensive lineman Derek Blanchard. … Kehres is also Mount Union’s director of athletics, and he also was the school’s first swimming and diving coach. … Wisconsin-Whitewater has set season-school records for yards rushing (3,763) and most rushing first downs (189).