Dec. 4, 2009

By Todd Mishler
Soecial To NCAA.com

WHITEWATER, Wis. –
Both teams have accumulated staggering offensive numbers and unleashed stifling defenses. So, something has to give in a big way Saturday when UW-Whitewater meets Wittenberg University (Ohio) in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal showdown.

The second-ranked Warhawks have demolished unranked Lakeland and No. 14 Illinois Wesleyan by a combined 115-14, while 12th-raned Wittenberg has whipped unranked Mount St. Joseph and Trine by a combined 76-31 margin.

In the only remaining match-up of unbeaten teams (both are 12-0), the Tigers face a daunting task at Perkins Stadium, where UW-Whitewater has won 37 of its last 38 games since 2005.

Mother Nature shouldn’t be a factor in stopping the hosts. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 30s in this first-ever battle between the two schools.

That means Wittenberg must clamp down on Lance Leipold’s UW-W juggernaut that is fourth in the nation in scoring (45.1 points per game) and total offense (501.2 yards).

The Tigers’ are No. 1 defensively in both categories, limiting opponents to 7.0 points and 172.7 yards per contest behind junior end Eddie Vallery’s 15.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss and three All-North Coast Athletic Conference linebackers.

“After watching four films and looking at everything they’ve accomplished the past several years, all you can say is they’re a really good team,” Wittenberg Coach Joe Fincham said. “We’re a 4-3 team that isn’t as big as other defenses, but we have 11 guys who run and tackle well.”

The Tigers must do that and more to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1979, while the Warhawks are chasing their fifth consecutive appearance in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.

Leipold, whose first three squads have compiled a 39-3 record, knows his team must perform well to advance.

“Wittenberg’s defense really runs to the ball and creates a lot of turnovers, so this will be a huge test for us,” Leipold said. “(Eddie) Gallery caught our attention on film and has put up All-American numbers. Our offensive line needs to give great effort and rise to the occasion.”

UW-W’s front wall has done just that in allowing only four sacks and helping senior quarterback Jeff Donovan complete 73 percent of his pass attempts and compile a 25-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. They’ve also opened huge holes for sophomore tailback Levell Coppage, who’s rambled for 1,764 yards (7.1 average) and scored a school and Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference record 29 rushing TDs.

“This is the first time we’ve returned our starting quarterback, and Jeff has been outstanding,” Leipold said. “It always shows in the second year because the game slows down, and he understands the system and coverages so much better.”

Coppage also has sparkled in averaging 147 yards per game.

“Levell isn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he has good speed, great vision and the quickness to make guys miss,” said Leipold, whose squad faces a Tigers defense that allowed only one regular-season foe to score in double figures.

A balanced attack has allowed UW-W to register 35 or more points in every outing and 40 or more six times while scoring on 88 percent of its drives into the red zone.

UW-Whitewater has another weapon in senior kicker Jeff Schebler, who is the NCAA’s all-time scorer (in all divisions) with 446 points.

Meanwhile, Wittenberg’s offense is no slouch, having averaged 38.7 points and 455.8 yards behind two performers who missed most of 2008 as the Tigers finished 6-4.

Senior quarterback Aaron Huffman has established numerous school milestones this year after going down in the second weef of last season, including the career passing yardage standard that had stood for 45 years. Huffman has a vast arsenal of targets in senior and all-time school receptions leader Patrick Williams and talented sophomores Josh McKee and Michael Cooper.

Wittenberg also features the running talents of junior Corey Weber, who has gained 1,145 yards after missing the final nine games in 2008.

Fincham said the task is far from easy, but the idea is simple.

“We’ll play hard and hopefully get a couple of breaks that you need to win every postseason game,” Fincham said. “And with a little luck, we’ll be there with a chance to win it in the fourth quarter.”

Leipold said the difference could be which team can sustain its offense.

“(Defensively) you always try to make the other team one-dimensional, and Wittenberg has the same approach,” Leipold said. “When you can have a balanced offense, you have a chance to win because you can control the clock by running and can get back into the game behind your passing.”