Ballhawking Warhawks finding big plays

By Jason Bailey
For D3sports.com

UW-Whitewater vs. Trine
Trine turned the ball over twice against UW-Whitewater, one week after Franklin had four turnovers. This past week North Central turned it over three times, all in the fourth quarter.
d3photography.com file photo by Daryl Tessmann

UW-Whitewater didn’t have the lead, and it didn’t have the ball.

First things first.

The Warhawks forced three consecutive turnovers -- setting up their offense past midfield each time -- to erase a late three-point deficit and comfortably control the fourth quarter in last week’s 20-10 quarterfinal victory at North Central. The win sent Whitewater (13-0, 7-0 WIAC) to its sixth consecutive national semifinal, a Saturday road trip to Wesley (13-0, 3-0 ACFC).

The opportunistic defense especially needed to be stingy because the defending national champion was held to the fewest points posted during the team’s 28-game winning streak.

“With the game so close, we knew we had to step up and make plays, and get our offense the ball so they could score and win the game,” senior outside linebacker Lane Olson said. “The hard work we put in the offseason allows us to go 100 percent in all four quarters and wear teams out when they might not have the extra oomph we do.”

Although coaches mentioned at halftime that forcing a turnover could change the complexion of a low-scoring game, it’s not a particular point of emphasis in a risk-averse defensive scheme. When it comes down to it, big players make big plays in big games, the cliché goes.

Junior defensive back Sam Overton started the surge with an interception after junior linebacker Greg Arnold tipped a pass. Then sophomore defensive lineman Jake Hohlstein forced a fumble that senior defensive tackle Luke Hibner recovered after a quarterback scramble. Hibner capped the defensive stands with an athletic deflection and interception he ran back to the 3-yard line.

“Those turnovers, they were all forced turnovers,” Whitewater defensive coordinator Brian Borland said. “They weren’t gift turnovers. Our guys are happy to see that we’re able to step it up a notch at crunch time when things really need to get done. We’ve really been able to find another gear the last couple weeks. Our players are making up their minds that the game has to go a certain way, and they’re making it happen.”

The turnover binge wasn’t a one-game phenomenon. The defense has repeatedly stepped up in postseason games, notably recovering three fumbles in the fourth quarter to help win last year’s Stagg Bowl after Mount Union closed a 14-point deficit. Whitewater forced 17 turnovers in five playoff games during that title run after forcing 15 turnovers in the 10-game regular season. This season, the Warhawks have forced 10 turnovers (six interceptions, four fumbles) in three postseason games after creating 22 (eight interceptions, 14 fumbles) in the regular season.

“It has to do with the whole playoff mentality,” said Olson, who leads the team with 75 tackles and four forced fumbles. “Each game is a bigger game, and we have to step up even more if we want to to win the game, especially if they’re close. We see what it does for the team, and you get in your mind, ‘I want to be that guy. I want to make a play for the team.’ ”

It’s common knowledge that winning the turnover battle is a top predictor for victories. And it’s no coincidence Whitewater forced seven combined turnovers in its two national championship wins (2009, 2007) and only four over its three title game losses (2008, 2006, 2005).

Against North Central, Whitewater also had three near misses -- the officials said cornerback Matt McCulloch trapped an apparent interception, the Cardinals recovered a fumble forced by Olson on a blindside sack and a runner was ruled down before Olson forced another fumble. But it’s important not to let those bad breaks spoil a week’s worth of preparation.

“In a big game like that, I think it’s really tough,” said McCulloch, who leads the team with five interceptions. ”We obviously thought we were getting the ball, and come to find out, the ref comes in and overturns it. It’s tough, you just got to rally back up and try to force another one. Try to get a three-and-out. Try to find a way to get off the field, and give our offense the ball.”

The Warhawks survived until the second-half stretch where three key defensive plays snuffed out drives and allowed the offense to build a lead while burning more than seven minutes of the clock. Head coach Lance Leipold said the turnovers also provided a welcome morale boost.

“Our guys have been pretty business-like,” Leipold said. “When those turnovers came, the energy on the sideline just jumps tenfold. And the big thing is when we are getting those turnovers -- it may not be touchdowns, but we have had a good success rate at turning them into points. Turning a tie game into a lead; turning a lead into a two-possession lead. And that’s just huge, and you can feel after those turnovers, besides the energy, the confidence just starts coming up within the group and the team as a whole.”

The Warhawks don’t do anything revolutionary to prepare for those moments, simply running standard interception and fumble drills in practice. The basic 4-3 defense doesn’t rely on flashy blitzes or pre-snap movement to confuse offenses, instead placing an emphasis on proper positioning and gap control. By limiting big plays and forcing teams to make lengthy scoring drives, Whitewater increases the probability that the offense will make a key mistake.

“When the game gets on the line and teams get nervous, we’re able to play hard and fast. We do play that way, and I think sometimes you make your own breaks,” Borland said. “You make people rush, you make people panic. You make people do things that are maybe out of character for them.”

Whitewater also benefits by making offenses one-dimensional. The team isn’t fretting about being ranked 108th in passing defense (189.2 yards allowed per game) because the philosophy is to eliminate the running game first. The Warhawks have allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (50.9) and often force teams to abandon the run after building a large lead.

The statistics also have been skewed because the Warhawks had the unusual task of facing the nation’s top-rated passer for two consecutive weeks to start the playoffs. Franklin’s Kyle Ray picked up 373 passing yards (although it took him 72 attempts and he threw three interceptions) and Eric Watt kept Trine competitive by throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns.

Whitewater didn’t take the lead for good against the Thunder until the fourth quarter with the help of two second-half turnovers -- an interception by junior safety Steve McCollom and a forced fumble by junior cornerback Jared Kiesow. After comfortably coasting to the semifinals last season, Whitewater is learning from the close games it has played in recent weeks.

“I haven’t seen any change in our football team,” Leipold said. “There is not a sense of panic, or we are abandoning game plans or we are coming off flustered. They just stay the course. They have been through enough games now and seen so many situations, that I think they are prepared for what is happening and have handled it in a mature way.”

Maintenance in progress.
Dec. 9: All times Eastern
Mount Union 43, at UW-Oshkosh 40
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Brockport 0
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Dec. 15: All times Eastern
Mount Union 12, at Mary Hardin-Baylor 0
@ Salem, Va.
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