|Levell Coppage loving the
moment after UW-Whitewater claimed its third consecutive national
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
SALEM, Va. — UW-Whitewater’s defense completed one of the most impressive stretches Division III football has seen. The Warhawks held their five playoff opponents to a total of 38 points. Three of those opponents — Franklin, St. Thomas, and Mount Union — ranked in the top 20 in the nation in scoring offense this season.
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Defensive coordinator Brian Borland’s unit was the deciding factor in the Warhawks’ 13-10 victory over Mount Union, giving Whitewater its third straight Division III national championship.
“I thought we had an outstanding defensive effort today,” said Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold. “We really played some outstanding defense throughout the playoffs.”
It all started up front for the Warhawks. The defensive line, led by Stagg Bowl XXXIX Most Outstanding Player Louissant Minett, stopped running back Jeremy Murray and consistently pressured quarterback Matt Piloto all night. While the usually potent Whitewater offense was held in check by a stellar defensive effort from Mount Union, the Warhawks defense rose to the challenge and set the tone for the game. Whitewater forced three turnovers, including the biggest play of the game.
“They’re a very good defense, as they showed tonight,” said Piloto. “They are very fast and they make you alter your feet and do some things that you’re not used to doing.”
What many expected to be another offensive shootout turned in to the biggest defensive struggle between the purple powers. This marked the first time in their seven meetings that the teams played to a scoreless tie after one quarter. The 3-0 Whitewater halftime lead was the lowest scoring first half between the two. Levell Coppage was held to 91 yards on 32 carries and Whitewater’s offense totaled just 210 yards despite leading in time of possession. Whitewater’s lone touchdown was what Coppage called the easiest of his career.
After a sack by Ryan Cortez backed the Purple Raiders to their own 5-yard line, Minett sacked and forced a Piloto fumble in the end zone. The ball bounced out to the 1-yard line, where it was recovered by Cole Klotz. On the next snap, Coppage scored the Warhawks only touchdown of the game. Personal statistics mean far less to Coppage than the only numbers that matter: 13 for the Warhawks, 10 for the Purple Raiders.
“You can never be frustrated with a win and you can never be frustrated with a championship,” said Coppage, who finished a stellar run at Whitewater with 109 career touchdowns.
That fumble had the biggest impact, but it was far from the only difference the Warhawks defensive line made. Minett twice hit Piloto as he threw on third down, forcing incompletions. He also hit Piloto to create a wobbly pass that was picked off by Noah Timm.
“Every play, I just focus on keeping my motor running,” said the sophomore defensive end. “Every play is not granted.”
Minett suffered an injury on Mount Union’s third down play with 1:38 to go in the game and had to watch from the sideline as the Purple Raiders attempted to convert on fourth down to keep their title hopes alive. With Minett on the sideline, Piloto had enough time to complete a pass to Jasper Collins and extend the drive. Minett returned two plays later, as Mount Union faced a third down and ten from its own 31 yard line. On fourth and ten, Jake Hohlstein and Anthony Bounds pressured Piloto and forced him to complete a short under route to Chris Denton. The Warhawks stopped Denton short of the first down and quarterback Matt Blanchard set up the Whitewater offense in the victory formation.
The young Whitewater defense held Mount Union to 238 total yards of offense and just 59 yards in the first half. This championship effort came one week after the Warhawks shutout St. Thomas to advance to Salem. Entering the season, Whitewater knew it had a proven senior star in Coppage and a talented senior quarterback in Blanchard. The defensive leaders would need to emerge as the season progressed. They came up with three game-changing turnovers.
“We needed guys like [sophomore linebacker] Ryan Cortez and [junior cornerback] Chris Pendergast to step up and be contributors this year and those are the type of guys that this team needed and they rose to the occasion and matured very quickly,” said Leipold.
The sophomore-dominated defense sends off senior leaders Coppage, Blanchard, and offensive lineman Logan Allemand with a third straight Walnut & Bronze trophy.
“It’s just a team effort, it’s not just one defensive player,” said Pendergast, who had the Warhawks’ other interception, at the Whitewater 4-yard line. “We all play as a team and we all fly around and it’s a credit to the game plan of Coach Borland and then we have to execute.”
Minett was pushed in offseason workouts by Coppage and learned quickly the kind of effort that it takes to build a champion. The seniors leave behind a legacy of three straight Stagg Bowl titles. More importantly, they leave behind the foundation and wisdom that they shared with the underclassmen who will be charged with keeping the tradition and the now 45-game winning streak alive.
“For all of us to step up and do this for the seniors and try and carry this legacy is going to be the key for the future success of our defense,” said Minett.
The high-energy sophomore end paid the biggest tribute he could to his senior teammates by wreaking havoc on the Mount Union offense from snap to whistle each play that he was on the field. Although he is an underclassman, he showed that he understands what it takes to win a championship, and he proved it on this rainy night in Salem.
“I feel like I left everything on the field,” said Minett.
He and his defensive mates hope to be back here again next year playing for a fourth straight national championship, once again leaving it all on the field.