SALEM, Va. -- Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier’s rivalry had nothing on the slugfest in Friday night’s 42nd Stagg Bowl at Salem Stadium.
The game was full of All-Americans and stars on both sides of the ball, but it was 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back Dennis Moore who played the hero in Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 43-34 victory against Mount Union.
Mount Union’s All-American quarterback Kevin Burke and last year’s Stagg Bowl Most Outstanding Player Matt Behrendt went head-to-head in a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady-esque quarterback battle. Behrendt came out looking sharp, showing no signs of fatigue from two tough games in the quarter and semifinals. The Warhawks jumped out to an early 13-0 lead before the first quarter came to a close.
“We went into this thing and we made a decision,” Warhawks coach Lance Leipold said. “They hadn’t trailed all year. That’s why we took the ball [in the coin toss]. We were going to go on the attack and we were going to come out and play our game. We don’t modify the game plan and our guys have executed it. They are very explosive. As long as we stayed aggressive and had a chance to make plays, we would match them punch for punch.”Two costly interceptions by the two-time Gagliardi Award winner Kevin Burke, one which would be returned to the house by Warhawks All-American defensive back Brady Grayvold, sent the Warhawks into the half up 30-14.
“It’s always been ten other guys doing their job,” Grayvold said of his second career pick-six off of Burke in a Stagg Bowl.”I vividly remember that play, it was coming so fast, I just thought I saw the coverage and sat there. It’s always other people doing there job.”
All season, Burke has shown the poise that has made him one of the greatest quarterbacks in recent DIII history. Unfazed by a 16-point deficit, Burke marched 67 yards downfield for a perfectly placed touchdown pass to Roman Namdar on the opening drive of the second half. The drive rejuvenated the Raiders.
Raise the Jolly Roger, the Purple Raiders were on the attack again.
“I’m extremely proud of the team,” Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres said. “We could have folded the tent there at half time. We were down, we came back, we kept our poise, responded and got right back in the game.”
The avalanche that is the MU offense continued to overwhelm Whitewater after Burke’s commanding opening drive. Burke, after the Raiders defense held Whitewater on the following drive, with the help of his bruising back Logan Nemeth, went 79 yards in just 2:47 seconds for another score. You could feel the tides turning in the chilly winds encircling the field.
Burke had done the unthinkable: in less than ten minutes, he had turned the 16-point disadvantage into a one-point lead. The Purple Raiders were rolling on both sides of the ball. The Warhawks could seemingly do very little. Enter Dennis Moore.
Moore had been a non-factor until 5:05 remained in the third quarter, averaging a mere 2.8 yards per carry in his limited touches. The diminutive scat-back would be quiet no longer. He took Behrendt’s flick screen pass and wouldn’t stop until he reached the end zone. Seventy-five yards later the Warhawks would have the lead back. They would not lose it again.
“We had a lot of good blocks down field,” Moore said. “The game before we had a screen play that we busted open, so we knew it was a play that we had in our pocket. We took advantage of it and called it at the perfect time and the rest is history.”
You could feel the change in the stadium. The energetic Raider Nation that was so amped up just moments earlier, would quickly deflate for the time being. The same team that had not trailed an opponent all season would hold the lead for 15 seconds all night. As the wind was taken out of the Raiders sails, the Warhawks fans were once again awake. The electricity and tide had once again turned in this back-and-forth battle.
“That was the difference maker,” said Behrendt. “That was so huge. My job is to flick it to our playmakers’ hands and he did it. He really did. The offensive line was out there, it was the perfect play call.”
It wouldn’t be the last big play by Moore on the night. He would convert a huge third-and-10 at the end of the third quarter and take another pass 33 yards, extending the drive and setting up another Lake Bachar field goal to ice the game. Moore would finish with 75 yards rushing on 18 carries, but his big damage came through the air and his two catches for 108 yards and the game-clinching 75-yard touchdown.
While Moore played the hero, all eyes of the DIII nation were on the quarterback duel. Burke, who had thrown just five interceptions in his masterful season, threw four costly interceptions on the night. He would finish his career with just two losses, both at the hands of the Warhawks in the Stagg Bowl. It’s hard to envision a 43-34 game as a defensive battle, but the Warhawks defense answered the challenge.
“They came in averaging almost 60 points a game,” said Zach Nellis whose second interception of the night ended the final chance at victory for the Purple Raiders. “We talked all week how we had to limit those points, and 34 points is way too many, but it gave us a win in the national championship game, so I’ll take it any day.”
The games most valuable player, Behrendt, was nearly unstoppable. He threw for a career-high 365 yards and four touchdowns.
“I try and go out there and execute,” a very humble Behrendt said on how he handles the spotlight of championship games. “I know if I do my job, we have a good chance of winning. With all the play makers around me, the defense we have, the O-line, they all come together in big games and make me look a lot better.”
Of course the big story of the night was Warhawks head coach Lance Leipold and his final game as the leader of Wisconsin-Whitewater as he prepares his jump to FBS and the University of Buffalo. The Warhawks sent Leipold out in high fashion, giving him his sixth championship in his illustrious eight-year career with the Warhawks.
“It was only right to,” Warhawks defensive back Marcus McLin, who had an interception and fumble recovery of his own, said. “Coach, he deserves everything, every opportunity that is coming to him. It was only right, we set the goal. He said it was for us, but I think it was for him, too.”