SALEM, Va. -- It was supposed to be the other quarterback’s night, but Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Matt Behrendt obviously did not get the memo on that.
After all, Mount Union quarterback Kevin Burke had been awarded the Gagliardi Trophy as the Most Outstanding Player in NCAA Division III for the 2013 season only two nights earlier. And just prior to Friday night’s national championship game against Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, public relations officials handed out sheets listing D-III All-Americans according to D3football.com -- with Burke named the first-team quarterback.
Behrendt was nowhere to be found on any such pre-game bulletins. He wasn’t a Gagliardi Trophy finalist and he wasn’t on the second team, third team or even so much as honorable mention among the All-Americans.But a few hours later, Behrendt was a national champion and had been named Most Outstanding Player of the Stagg Bowl. By outplaying Burke and pretty much everyone else on the field before 5,371 at Salem Stadium, Behrendt led the fifth-ranked Warhawks to a decisive 52-14 victory against top-ranked Mount Union.
It was the fifth national title for UW-Whitewater (15-0), and it has defeated Mount Union (14-1) every time in the championship game. Friday’s victory also made amends for last season, when the then-three-time defending champion Warhawks didn’t even make the playoffs.
“It was a pretty significant way to put an exclamation point on an exciting season,” UW-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold said.
The loss represented Mount Union’s first loss by 20 or more points since 1989 and its worst loss overall in nearly four decades (since a 48-0 loss to Wittenberg in 1974, before head coach Vince Kehres was even born). And Behrendt obviously was mostly to blame for it.
“His passing was outstanding,” Kehres said. “His throws were right on the money and it’s tough to defend that.”
Behrendt seemed to be everywhere and unstoppable all at once.
He completed 20 of 28 passes for 249 yards and four touchdowns without throwing an interception. But of course, getting through the game without throwing a pick was no surprise for Behrendt. He threw only one all season – in 310 attempts and while firing a school-record 40 touchdown passes.
“To have only one in 15 [games] against some of these teams that we had to play of late is truly amazing. And the best part about it is he’s only a junior,” Leipold said.
Behrendt credited the coaches with coming up with a great game plan, his offensive line for blocking well, and his receivers for taking advantage of matchups against smaller defensive backs and catching whatever he seemed to throw their way.
Wide receiver Jake Kumerow was on the receiving end of seven Behrendt tosses for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver Tyler Huber caught four balls for 65 yards and the other two scores.
“We came in with a great game plan on offense,” Behrendt said. “The first drive, we wanted to kind of see what they were going to do. The key to this game was to take advantage of what they were doing. If we had one-on-one matchups on the outside, we were going to throw it. If they had double-teamed us, we would have had to run the ball more.
“At the beginning of the game, we had one-on-one matchups. And when you’ve got receivers like [Kumerow and Huber], it makes it easy. All of our receivers did a great job.”
Behrendt even ran the ball like, well, like Burke was supposed to.
Coming into the game, Burke had rushed for 1,035 yards on 183 attempts for the season. Behrendt had 59 rush attempts for minus-69 yards.
But on Friday night, the UW-Whitewater signal-caller made like Crazy Legs Behrendt and rushed for a season-high 56 yards on six carries. Several times he scrambled out of trouble for big gains to convert key third downs into first downs, and he wasn’t sacked even once.
Burke was held to minus-10 yards on 12 carries and was sacked four times.
“I saw some holes and just took off,” Behrendt said. “There were times when they were in double coverage [on the Warhawks’ receivers] and that just opened up things for me. I had to take what I could get.”
Kehres admitted the Purple Raiders were surprised by that.
“We hadn’t seen him run much on film, but he made some big plays with his feet,” Kehres said.
When he wasn’t running for first downs, Behrendt seemed to be throwing for them. Or for touchdowns.
By the time the fourth quarter began, UW-Whitewater was up 31-14 and driving for more. Behrendt’s fourth and final touchdown pass came shortly thereafter, and it was an impressive microcosm of his near-flawless night. It came on the run, side-armed, to wide receiver Jake Kumerow from 3 yards out and just inside the right pylon at the front of the end zone.
The way the Mount Union defenders positioned themselves on the play, there was no margin for error on the throw from Behrendt. As was typical of his entire night, and indeed his entire season, he put it precisely where only his receiver could haul it in.
“He does do that a lot. He can throw the ball side-armed, overhand, any way he wants,” Kumerow said of his quarterback. “When he’s on a roll like that, you know it’s going to come in hot. He put it in there on a perfect spiral, high and outside where I was the only guy who could go and get it. The defense couldn’t get it. I just did my job, made the catch, dragged my toes, just like practice.”
Mount Union, meanwhile, just made too many mistakes -- six penalties for 80 yards and four turnovers via two lost fumbles and two interceptions thrown by Burke -- and was dominated for long stretches on the offensive and defensive lines. The loss was the Purple Raiders’ first under Vince Kehres, who replaced his father, Larry, after they won the Stagg Bowl last season.
“To have an opportunity to go into your first head coaching job and basically be handed the keys to a Cadillac where you just try to wax it and gas it up, that’s really a great opportunity,” Kehres had said before the game.
But the keys to the Cadillac were stolen for this game by Behrendt, who then ran and passed at will against the Purple Raiders. Yet afterward he insisted he could have been better, and that’s scary.
“There were some errant throws that I could have made better,” Behrendt said. “When you’ve got receiver that can get open, it really does make it easy on me. I was just putting the ball on the spot. I just got in a groove, you know.”