Carrying the load
By Ryan Tipps
|Levell Coppage was banged up in the 2008 playoffs
and during the 2010 regular season, but the Warhawks' depth allowed
him to be rested for the 2010 drive for Salem.
Photo by Darryl Tessmann, d3photography.com
Levell Coppage rushed seven times on a drive that lasted 10 plays and resulted in a UW-Whitewater touchdown. On the Warhawks’ next series, he ran six times on seven plays -- touchdown again.
Those 82 yards and 12 points broke last weekend’s playoff game open in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, Whitewater was tied at 31 with Trine, an underdog that wasn’t expected to hang this long with the defending national champions.
But thanks largely to Coppage and his 300-yard game, Whitewater gets to play again this weekend.
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The All-American is one of three rushers who have helped Whitewater’s ground game to more than 3,000 yards this year, a number that has crippled opposing defenses. Coppage alone accounts for more than half of that total – along with 20 touchdowns.
His trajectory this fall, though, hasn’t always trended upward. In mid-September, the junior from Oak Park, Ill., got banged up on the field and struggled. For the next month, there were glints of the Coppage fans were familiar with, but questions were raised about whether he was at full strength, culminating with an Oct. 23 game against UW-River Falls in which he didn’t play.
“I don't think I've ever been out of my true form this season,” he said. “It’s a long season, and injuries are part of the game. But I felt that I've done a good job at battling through them. It’s frustrating at times because I always know my body can feel better, and my performance can go along with that. But I continue to stay healthy and perform the way I'm supposed to.”
As it was, Coppage wasn’t needed in that game he missed; senior Antwan Anderson had a career day then with 240 yards and three scores. But Coppage emerged from that week showing signs of being a workhorse for the team. In the final weeks of the regular season, he rushed 38, 29 and 23 times. He also had eight receptions.
Coppage and Anderson have shared time this year with Booker Stanley, who transferred to Whitewater from the Warhawks’ big brother program, Wisconsin. Still, it’s clear that Coppage is the go-to guy in the backfield, a role he solidified even further with Saturday’s performance.
“Having two running backs behind, knowing that at anytime they can fulfill the role, that I am helps me out tremendously,” said Coppage, who sports the No. 33 jersey. “They force me to work twice as hard, and I believe they help me become a better football player. It’s also crazy to know that Antwan Anderson and Booker Stanley can go anywhere in this division and be a staring back.”
|A career of carries
Levell Coppage has gone over 200 yards or over 30 carries multiple times in his career, but more often later in the season.
|Nov. 28, 2010||Trine||38||300||3|
|Oct. 30, 2010||UW-Stevens Point||38||179||2|
|Oct. 10, 2009||UW-Eau Claire||42||386||3|
|Nov. 7, 2009||UW-Oshkosh||27||209||3|
|Nov. 28, 2009||Illinois Wesleyan||32||188||2|
|Sept. 13, 2008||UW-Eau Claire||42||220||1|
Coach Lance Leipold said making the best use of all three of the rushers has been “a tough balancing act,” but one to which he credits running backs coach Nelson Edmunds.
“We’ve used [Coppage] a little bit in some different ways” this year, Leipold said. “I think the other two guys, especially being seniors, it’s been difficult on them a little bit. But all in all, they’ve been great team players, and they’ve handled their roles.”
Outscoring many of their opponents by 30 or more points has given Whitewater a chance to showcase each of the rushers. While sometimes, the team had to lean heavily on Coppage, the rhythm of the game dictated who would see the field the most. And for much of the first two months, Coppage being on the field late in a game was a rarity.
Coppage “has an uncanny feel for the game,” his coach said. “One thing that’s very unnoticed in him is that he’s good at pass protection and blitz pickup. He understands our concepts, and he’s a physical little player.”
Little? Don’t worry, it’s OK to say that. Coppage knows it.
“I may be 5-foot-8, 180, but I play way bigger than that,” the running back said defiantly.
While Coppage’s stats this year are impressive, it’s tough to mirror those he produced in 2009. That season, he piled on 2,107 yards and 35 touchdowns. It wasn’t until Saturday’s outing against Trine that it became clear that the person behind those gaudy numbers still takes the field with a vengeance.
“Getting ready for the game I knew I had to be mentally prepared because I had been sick earlier in the week,” Coppage said. “As focused as I was, I was not surprised at all; I know the things that I'm capable of.”
And that’s good for Whitewater. The team has had the opportunity to lean more on the run game in the postseason with backup quarterback Lee Brekke, a sophomore, filling in as starter for the injured Matt Blanchard. Leipold declined Monday to discuss the nature of Blanchard’s injury, but DailyUnion.com, the website for a Whitewater, Wis.-area newspaper, has reported that the junior signal-caller injured the thumb on his throwing hand.
Leipold said that Blanchard has dressed for the games that past two Saturdays and that he has practiced more and more each week. But the coach said that the team waits right up until game time to decide whether to put Blanchard or Brekke on the field.
“We’ll take the same approach this week,” Leipold said, “and hopefully Matt will be the guy taking the first snap. But, if not, Lee Brekke has led our football team, and we’re very confident in what he can do.”
So confident, it seems, that when the game against the Thunder was on the line after three quarters last weekend, Brekke played through till the end.
“We have not modified our offensive attack at all,” Leipold said. “Lee Brekke has thrown seven touchdown passes in two ballgames. And I think that’s been outstanding. We’ve scored almost 100 points and had almost 1,000 yards of offense.”
No matter who is under center, Coppage and the rest of his backfield rank as perhaps the team’s most dominant threats. Coppage’s 300-yard outing against Trine wasn’t even the largest of his career. He has the ability to make opponents miss tackles; he sees the hole in the line; he’s more quick than fast. Great performances from this kind of player aren’t surprises -- they’re expected.
And the team expects to drive that road all the way to Salem.
“I feel every road to success is almost always under construction,” Coppage theorizes. “So with that said, every team that we play on Saturday is a road block, and we just have to get through them.”