Dec. 5, 2009

By Todd Mishler
Special To

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s defense often plays in the shadow of its explosive scoring machine of an offense. And the Warhawks’ stop troops entered Saturday’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal contest getting less publicity than their foes, Wittenberg’s No. 1 rated defense.

However, Lance Leipold’s Warhawks, a top-five unit nationally regardless, overcame a tough first half to shut down the equally powerful Tigers after the break as the second-ranked hosts advanced with a 31-13 victory. Whitewater will play Linfield, a 31-20 winner against St. Thomas.

UW-Whitewater allowed 194 total yards before the break and was methodically picked apart by senior quarterback Aaron Huffman to the tune of 11 of 12 passing for 139 yards and 3 of 4 on third-down conversions. However, the Warhawks knocked Huffman out of the contest with a concussion late in the first half and slowly dictated play and field position.

And although backup Ben Zoeller tossed an 11-yard scoring pass on his first play from scrimmage to cut the visitors’ deficit to 14-13 with 32 seconds left before halftime, the Warhawks regrouped, dominated the second half and earned a little more respect.

UW-Whitewater clamped down on star junior halfback Corey Weber and the Tigers’ efficient ground game, holding them to minus-23 yards after the break, while harassing Zoeller from all angles – junior Wesley Hicks had two sacks -- and forcing a key interception by Troney Shumpert that set up the game’s final score and left no doubt as to the outcome.

Seniors Lane Olson and Anthony White were two of the key reasons why UW-Whitewater will be playing in the semifinals for a fifth consecutive season.

Olson tied Shumpert and White with a team-high eight total tackles and combined with linebacker Max Ford to put the crunching hit on Huffman late in the second quarter. White finished with one of the team’s four sacks and ended with 3.5 tackles for loss.

“We just wanted to play hard and to the best of our abilities,” White said after the Warhawks held Wittenberg to 88 total yards in the second half. “You got to take your game up to the next level and step up the intensity (in the postseason). Just because we’ve been here before doesn’t mean we don’t have to play good football.”

That’s exactly what UW-Whitewater did in cool but mostly sunny conditions at Perkins Stadium, and Olson said it feels good to make such a big impact against a quality quarterback like Huffman and a multi-faceted offense like Wittenberg’s.

“We hit him (Huffman) and he was stiff as a board and his eyes were rolling back in his head,” Olson said of the crucial sandwich hit. “But we tried to pressure them and stop their running game, especially after they gashed us in the first half. We shut that down and keyed on stopping the passing game.”

Olson said all that matters is advancing to the national semifinals – and maybe now the defense has earned the respect it deserves.

“This was the best passing attack we’ve faced this year, so we had to make plays,” Olson said. “We made adjustments, but we took heart in what we can do because we thought this might be a defensive game. We wanted to prove that we had the better defense, and we delivered with a win.”

Leipold knows that his defense doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody.

“Everything begins with the defensive line, and even though they got some runs on us, we stopped them and started controlling the down-and-distance situations,” Leipold said. “And that’s where Anthony and our pass rush comes into play. He’s a speed rusher, so when we feel like it’s turning into more of a down-field type game, that’s where Anthony and these guys become more of a factor.”