|UW-Oshkosh defensive back
Ryan Stefaniak chased down Whitewater quarterback Ryan Behrendt
after a short gain on a day in which Oshkosh put both UWW
quarterbacks on the move.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann for d3photography.com
By Andrew Wagner
OSHKOSH, Wis. – In the not-so-storied history of football at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, there may not have ever been a victory worthy of as many adjectives as the Titans 28-13 upset of No. 5 UW-Whitewater on Saturday.
There is still much to accomplish if the Titans hope to celebrate their first Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title since 1976 and clinch their first-ever NCAA Division III playoff berth. But history, which hasn’t always been kind to the Titans over the years, could be the single best teaching tool as Oshkosh tries to close out the season and lock down that elusive conference title beginning Saturday at UW-La Crosse.
In some respects, getting past Whitewater was the easy part of the equation. Beating the Warhawks has been a goal for coach Pat Cerroni as he rebuilt the Oshkosh progra from the ground up when he was promoted from defensive coordinator in 2007.
Getting players to choose Oshkosh, which had posted two winning seasons (but finished .500 six times) since its last conference title was no easy sell and required recruits to buy into a different kind of philosophy than Whitewater, the perennial powerhouse and three-time defending national champion.
“We just weren’t very good,” Cerroni said. “We didn’t recruit guys that wanted to be champions, we recruited guys that wanted to build a program and beat champions. Those are the kinds of kids we’ve got here right now. They didn’t come here thinking they were going to win championships; they came here to knock people off.
“It took a long time, five years, but last year we had 19 seniors, this year we’ve got 19, next year we’ll have 21. Getting a group of kids that are older and more mature makes a big difference.”
Titans have been
In the years since the WIAC first got an automatic bid to the playoffs, UW-Oshkosh has often been competitive, but not a contender. Year-by-year results:
The maturity was evident against Whitewater, especially early in the second half. Down 21-0 at the half, the Warhawks came out on fire in the third quarter, dominating the Titans defensively while kicking the offense into gear and cutting the lead to 21-13.
On the sidelines, there was no sense of panic from the Titans, who hadn’t beaten the Warhawks since 2002 and were winless in Whitewater since 1987. Led by senior quarterback Nate Wara, the Titans kept their cool, rode out the storm and finally got back on track, adding a fourth-quarter score to extend the lead.
That kind of poise – the cool and resilient nature – made it look like the upstart Titans had been there before. And they have … sort of.
Cerroni knew early on in the rebuilding process that, at some point, his team would need to be tested in “big-game” situations. With that in mind, he scheduled perennial powerhouse Mount Union to a home-and-home series for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, much like UW-Whitewater did in 2002 and 2003.
The results were predictable: Mount Union won both games in relatively easy fashion, 45-28 and 41-17, respectively. But the experience gained in those matchups was on display Saturday as Oshkosh held on for its historic victory.
“It was pretty impressive of how that crowd of 11,000 – I say 11,000 because probably 1,000 of the people [of the 12,318] in that stadium were our fans – you look across and they’re going crazy,” Cerroni said. “You know then that the momentum isn’t just lost or shifting, it’s gone at that point. We just stuck with it, made a couple plays, got lucky and it turned out good.
“That’s why we played Mount Union and Whitewater the last two years. Everyone said Oshkosh hasn’t been in a big game. We went to Mount Union a year ago. It was a pretty good atmosphere. We didn’t know how to play in those games but now, we were prepared for that moment.
“How do you prepare for this moment, the next one? This is the uncharted territory.”
Like Whitewater, La Crosse has dominated the series against Oshkosh, holding a 49-9-6 record dating to the first meeting in 1919. The Titans haven’t won in La Crosse since 1967 but finally snapped a 27-game losing streak two years ago in Oshkosh. Last season, they came into the game with a shot at a playoff bid but fell in overtime, 30-24.
That game is still fresh in the Titans’ collective minds, not so much for the end result, but for the lack of focus in that game, which came on the heels of a three-point loss to Whitewater a week before.
Coming up just short against the Warhawks set the tone for a disappointing week of practice and preparation and ultimately, a missed opportunity.
“It was almost like Whitewater beat us twice,” said senior running back Cole Myhra.
The Eagles jumped out to a 24-7 lead midway through the third quarter before the Titans finally got themselves together and rallied to force overtime before losing.
The score was misleading. La Crosse dominated in almost every facet of the game, gaining 479 total yards and 28 first downs compared to just 297 and 13 for the Titans, while holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes and converting 56 percent of their third-down attempts.
“We lost focus,” Wara said. “After we lost to Whitewater, we just were like ‘we lost by three points, we could have done something else.’ Our minds just weren’t into the La Crosse game at all.”
Cerroni doesn’t foresee any mental issues heading into this year’s meeting of the two teams. Barely 24 hours after the Whitewater game, the Titans’ collective focus was already evident.
“Sunday night was totally different,” Cerroni said. “I didn’t see a team that left it all out there. We really fought last year and I give them a lot of credit. I saw the focus on Sunday night. This is how it’s been all year.”
Oshkosh played La Crosse earlier this season, in a nonconference game at Oshkosh. The Titans won, 16-7, behind 320 total yards from Wara, who passed for 238 and ran for another 82. The Oshkosh defense held La Crosse to just 102 total yards, including just 17 on the ground.
Since then, La Crosse has been up-and-down, sandwiching victories against UW-Stevens Point and UW-Stout with losses to UW-Platteville and UW-Eau Claire. In all, the Eagles are 2-2 in the league (3-4 overall), but nobody in the Oshkosh camp is expecting an easy go of things come Saturday.
“La Crosse is a good football team and they’re getting better by the week,” Cerroni says. “There’s no cakewalk in this league.”
Get past La Crosse, and two games remain: at home against UW-Stevens Point and the season finale at UW-Stout.