Dec. 10, 2009

By Todd Mishler
Special to NCAA.com

WHITEWATER, Wis. –
Fans at Perkins Stadium will be in for a treat if Saturday’s NCAA Division III semifinal showdown between UW-Whitewater and Linfield even approaches the schools’ first and only meeting.

The visiting Warhawks pulled out a 44-41 barnburner in Oregon to reach their first of four consecutive championship game appearances in 2005. The wild contest featured 10 lead changes and more than 1,000 yards of combined offense as UW-Whitewater scored in the final minute to knock off the defending national champions.

This weekend, host Whitewater, the No. 2 seed, enters the game with a 13-0 mark and is seeking its fifth consecutive trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and a meeting with either Mount Union or Wesley, who play in the other semifinal. Both teams have made numerous appearances in the championship game.

No. 5  Linfield (12-0) enters with an eight-game road winning streak. The Wildcats have averaged 40.6 points in three postseason contests, but they’ve allowed 19.3, by far the most of the final four teams.

“They’re an excellent team, so we’ll face a huge test like we did last week,” Warhawks’ coach Lance Leipold said. “We talk about playing a four-quarter ballgame every week, so it was good to see how we handled it against Wittenberg. We expect another 60-minute challenge.”

Coach Joseph Smith is 30-9 in his fourth season after Linfield disposed of St. Thomas (Minn.) last week, 31-20, behind junior tailback Simon Lamson’s three touchdowns, junior quarterback Aaron Boehme’s 256 yards passing and five forced turnovers, including sophomore Christian Hann’s two interceptions.

Linfield tops the nation in turnover ratio and sports the No. 6 scoring attack.

“They’ve been very opportunistic, especially in the playoffs,” said Leipold, who is 40-3 in his three seasons at the helm. “Who knows what the weather will be like Saturday. And they have an ability to create turnovers, so ball security will be extremely important.

“Offensively, they throw for about 100 yards more per game, they have a well-coached offensive line that protects well and they have an excellent quarterback who can throw the deep ball,” Leipold added. “It’ll be a test to slow them down.”

UW-W is fourth in scoring and total offense, while its defense stands second in scoring defense (8.5) and fifth in total defense and could be the unit that decides the outcome.

Leipold’s Warhawks have throttled three playoff opponents by an average of 48.7 to 9. Their 31-13 triumph over Wittenberg last week gave them eight wins over teams with winning records.

Smith is confident that his Wildcats will be ready to play in what’s expected to be partly cloudy conditions and temperatures in the upper 20s.

“Our guys have played 12 games this year, six of them against ranked opponents, so they’ve played in a lot of (big) games, at least in their minds,” Smith said. “They have a great program, but I like how our guys are playing, so it should be a fun game.”

Maybe not for Linfield’s defense. The Wildcats face an explosive offense that features sophomore tailback Levell Coppage, UW-Whitewater’s career leader with 51 rushing TDs, who has gained 1,887 yards rushing with 30 of those scores this season.

Senior receiver Aaron Rusch, the all-time receptions leader for UW-W, is eight catches from tying the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference mark. Almost all of those during the past two years have come from senior Jeff Donovan, who has completed 73.4 percent of his tosses for 27 touchdowns against only five interceptions.

And the Warhawks also have senior kicker and Gagliardi Trophy finalist Jeff Schebler, who is 11 of 14 on field goals despite missing twice last week.

“Their offense is exceptional, and their defense is very good up front and at linebacker, and they have an exceptional secondary,” Smith said. “We certainly will have our hands full and will need to play extremely well in all three phases.”