The Associated Press
SALEM, Va. — Levell Coppage burst through the line, saw all green in front of him and knew he could turn his late third-and-6 carry into a championship. That’s not all he was thinking.
“Am I going fast, one? Two, should I zig-zag? And three, is anybody behind me?” Coppage said after sealing Wisconsin-Whitewater’s third NCAA Division III national championship in four years with a 75-yard touchdown run Saturday in the Warhawks’ 31-21 victory against Mount Union.
Coppage ran for 299 yards, an Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl record, and three touchdowns and Wisconsin-Whitewater forced five turnovers and shut out Mount Union in the second half. The Warhawks completed their second consecutive 15-0 season, improved to 57-3 in Lance Leipold’s four years as head coach and have supplanted the Purple Raiders as DIII kings.
“It’s unreal,” said senior defensive back Matt McCulloch, who had two of the Warhawks’ four interceptions in the game and a team-best eight tackles. “I’m happy for the seniors. We deserve it. You can’t even describe how it feels. It’s unreal. It’s awesome.”
Coppage, the game’s most outstanding player for the second year in a row, made it look easy at times. He scored on runs of 54, 11 and 75 yards, the latter with 2:34 to play. ”As the game went on, they were really condensing the holes,” he said, a champions cap perched on his head. He said the Purple Raiders’ strategy caused him to start running outside, like on his 11-yard TD. “After I did that, the inside started opening up for me.”
The Purple Raiders came in with the nation’s top defense, allowing less than 200 yards per game, and with every intention of slowing down the 5-foot-8, 170-pound tailback. ”He’s a patient runner and he’ll wait until he sees a gap in the defense,” said Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, whose team lost for the fourth time in 14 Stagg Bowls. “He can start and accelerate so tremendously in the first 5, 6 yards, and then ‘poof!’ he’s gone.”
Coppage carried 39 times and went over 2,000 yards for the season with 25 TDs.
The Purple Raiders (14-1) did all their scoring in less than 4 minutes in the second quarter, with the help of two turnovers, but otherwise couldn’t solve the Warhawks’ defense. ”They’re kind of ticking me off,” Kehres said of the Warhawks, with a wink, “and I might have to kick myself in gear a little bit to get ready to win three out of the next four.”
The teams set a record by each appearing in the championship game for the sixth consecutive season. They had shared the mark with fellow Division III member Augustana College (Ill.), which played in five consecutive 1982 to 1986, winning the last four games.
After a high scoring first half, the defense tightened in the second half.
With both teams using backup quarterbacks because of injuries, three series ended on interceptions in the third quarter, and when Mount Union put quarterback-turned-receiver Cecil Shorts behind center for more mobility in the fourth quarter, he fumbled the ball away on one possession and got sacked for a 9-yard loss by Luke Hibner on another key play. The latter came shortly before Coppage’s long touchdown run sealed it.
The first half was completely different.
Coppage gave the Warhawks the lead when he broke through the line and outran three defenders to the end zone from 54 yards away. After a 25-yard punt by Brandon Mathie went out of bounds at the Purple Raiders 28 late in the first quarter, the Warhawks drove to the Mount Union 13, and Eric Kindler’s 30-yard field goal gave Whitewater a 10-0 advantage.
Three touchdowns in less than 4 minutes gave Mount Union the lead. ”We were excited when we scored the 21 points, and how fast we did it,” said backup quarterback Matt Piloto, who started because of an injury to Neal Seaman last week. “But we knew that we were going to have to keep on going because they have a great defense.”
First, Coppage was stripped of the ball by Nick Driskill and Charles Diesuel recovered for Mount Union at the Warhawks’ 40. On the second play, after a 1-yard run by Jeremy Murray, Piloto hit Kyle Miller for a 39-yard touchdown play down the right sideline.
Whitewater’s backup quarterback Lee Brekki, who played throughout the playoffs after starter Matt Blanchard was hurt in the regular-season finale, then threw right to lineman Lambert Budzinski, and he returned it to the Warhawks’ 4. Two plays later, Murray took it in from the 1, his 21st touchdown, and Mount Union had its first lead of the game at 14-13.
The Purple Raiders made it 21-10 after a three-and-out for the Warhawks when Piloto found Shorts behind the secondary and hit him in stride, a 58-yard connection 6:50 before halftime.
But the Warhawks responded, going 65 yards on their ensuing possession. Coppage went wide around the left side and lunged for the touchdown from 11 yards out with 2:46 to play. They got the ball back with 1:56 to play, and a 30-yard pass from Brekki to Adam Brandes highlighted a seven-play drive to Brekke’s 31-yard TD pass to Tyler Huber on third-and-9.
That gave the Warhawks a 24-21 lead, and their defense — and Coppage — made it stand up.
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