Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Clunker of a game is not what we're used to in Stagg Bowl

This one ended the way they usually do here, with both sets of fans standing, one chanting "U-Dub-Dub!" and the other clinging to whatever hope was left.

The finish of the 2011 Stagg Bowl had all the drama we've come to expect from this game and its powerhouse participants.

Everything before that, though?


You could call it a defensive battle if you want, and it was. But Wisconsin-Whitewater's 13-10 victory over Mount Union would be better described as a clunker.

And maybe these teams were due for one of those. For six straight years, they'd entertained us with high-powered offenses and spectacular individual performances. They'd made the Salem Stadium scoreboard glow: 52 combined points last year, 66 the year before that, 57 the year before that.

Receivers such as Cecil Shorts III secured their legacies by making dazzling catches in traffic. Stud running backs such as Justin Beaver churned for huge yardage in their swan-song performances. Just last year, Levell Coppage rushed for 299 yards to lead Wisconsin-Whitewater to victory.

Two-ninety-nine! Try finding that at the FBS level.

Well, Coppage was back this year. And after posting the third 2,000-yard rushing season of his career, he averaged a paltry 2.8 on 32 carries Friday.

Credit Mount Union for some of that, sure. The Purple Raiders came into this game with the No. 2-ranked defense in Division III. But don't they always come in here with a lofty ranking? Since when did that matter?

Nobody on either offense was doing much. The passes often were nowhere close to their targets. The offensive lines gave their backs little chance. The halftime score was 3-zip. Mount Union went more than three quarters without scoring.

Neither starting quarterback reached 100 passing yards until midway through the fourth quarter, when the Purple Raiders started taking some shots downfield out of necessity. The winning QB, Matt Blanchard, never got to the century mark.

Because of all this, voting for the Most Outstanding Player award ranked among the most difficult exercises you'll ever see. Uhh †can we pass this time? Warhawks defensive end Loussaint Minett took the honors after forcing a fumble to set up his team's only touchdown. Fine choice. I voted for Warhawks linebacker Noah Timm, who had eight tackles and a critical interception. So did my colleague Mark Berman.

None of us had any idea.

Upon further review, the player of the game should have been Wisconsin-Whitewater punter Kris Rosholt, who banged five of his six kicks inside the Mount Union 20. Yes, punting was painfully critical in this one.

It was a shanked punt by Mount Union that set up the Warhawks in Purple Raiders territory for the most important score of the game - a 30-yard field goal by Eric Kinder with 5:34 remaining that made the margin 10 points.

Suddenly desperate, Mount Union actually started looking like the Mount Union of old. The Purple Raiders put together a crisp touchdown drive of eight plays and 72 yards, then forced a three-and-out to set up a dramatic final sequence.

But we should have known offense wasn't going to prevail on this night. Facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 31, the Purple Raiders dialed up a curious call - a short pass that was caught by Chris Denton seven yards shy of the sticks.

He had no chance. Four defenders converged and brought him down. The Warhawks rejoiced at their third straight title - well deserved but hardly a thing of beauty.

Said Whitewater coach Lance Leipold: "Another exciting four-quarter football game that went right down to the very end."

Hmm. Well, he's right about that last part, at least.

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