/playoffs/2012/wittenberg-win-or-else

For Wittenberg, it's win or else

More news about: Wittenberg
Wittenberg, including receiver Desi Kirkman, didn't give up when down by 22 points.
Wittenberg athletics photo

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

If you take a moment and understand the mentality of the Wittenberg football team, you begin to see why perhaps the wild and thrilling 52-38 comeback win over Heidelberg in the opening round of the Division III playoffs isn’t so crazy after all.

Yes, to overcome a 22-point deficit in the playoffs, against an Ohio Athletic Conference opponent on the road no less, is no easy task, but the Tigers (10-1) have been in win-or-else mode since losing to North Coast Athletic Conference rival Wabash in the middle of the season.

“We’ve been like a band of brothers and have taken the approach of it’s us against everyone else,” said senior kicker Sean Williams, one of the top kickers in program history and a nominee for the Fred Mitchell Award. “We are a tight group and we have been focused. I think it made a difference for us on Saturday. We were very resilient and it was an exciting game to win.”

The Tigers trailed 21-3 early and were in a 31-13 hole at halftime. Williams, who had two brothers play for Wittenberg as well, accounted for six of the points in the first half, including three on a 41-yard field goal in the opening quarter. It was his first field goal of the year from 40-plus yards.

Coach Joe Fincham has been at Wittenberg for nearly 20 years. He has been a part of a lot of big wins since taking the job in 1996 after six years as an assistant. This is the ninth time Fincham has taken the Tigers to the playoffs, although this trip seemed destined to end quickly considering the way the first half played out.

“We didn’t get off to a good start, and part of that was a credit to Heidelberg and part of that was the fact that we put ourselves in bad situations,” Fincham said. “I got text messages asking me if I had someone record my halftime speech, but I told them they would be disappointed because it wasn’t anything special. Most of the fire and brimstone talk came from the players. My message to them was to just keep playing hard until the end.”

Turns out, the Tigers took the message to heart and looked like a different team in the final 30 minutes.

Heidelberg scored only one touchdown in the second half and was limited to 138 yards. The Tigers’ offense roared to life, as Wittenberg beat an OAC team in the playoffs for the first time since 1978.

Williams started things off with a 29-yard field goal before Reed Florence shredded the Student Princes for four touchdown passes, including a 2-yard scoring strike to Desi Kirkman to give the Tigers their first lead at 38-31 early in the fourth quarter.

Florence went 31 of 49 for 346 yards, the second-best performance in program history, and Kirkman caught 10 passes for 104 yards. Brendon Cunningham caught eight passes for 94 yards and three scores.

Heath Eby sealed the deal for the Tigers when he returned an interception 60 yards for a score, catapulting Wittenberg into a second-round showdown with Hobart on Saturday.

“We had better field position in the second half and we got turnovers. Those two things help you win football games,” Fincham said. “I also thought our quarterback got hot at the right time. He made some big plays with his arm and his feet and our defense came up with some timely plays. The momentum started to shift. It put pressure on them and made it easier for us to play.”

But shifting the momentum in a pressure-packed playoff game isn’t easy. It’s not as if the Tigers were up against some pushover near the bottom of a conference. Heidelberg, making its first appearance in the playoffs, was the second best team in the OAC, its only loss a 33-14 setback to top-ranked Mount Union.

“I’ve been in the playoffs nine times as a head coach here and I’ve seen our teams win and lose games every way known to man,” Fincham said. “When you fall behind against a team in the playoffs, it is very tough to try and come back. Sometimes when you try to catch up, you end up further behind. Our guys never quit. They believed in themselves and found a way to win.”

As a senior, the win was extra special for Williams, who is 11 of 13 on field goals and 51 of 54 on point-after attempts this year. He holds school records for consecutive field goals (19) and PATs (50).

Williams admits there was a little pressure on him, especially in the first half when points were tough to come by for the Tigers.

“There is always a little pressure on you as a kicker, especially when you are losing and you need points,” Williams said. “But I credit the coaching staff for trusting in me to make those field goals. I was glad I could hit them.”

Off the field, Williams is a volunteer for youth football camps in his hometown of Plainfield, Ind., and at Wittenberg. He is also a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and at the Springfield Regional Medical Center. Williams has even worked as an intern at Rocking Horse Community Health Center.

“I was a backup as a freshman, but I got to travel and experience the trip up to Wisconsin-Whitewater for the playoffs,” Williams said. “It was tough losing to Ohio Northern in the playoffs my sophomore year because we had a great (regular) season. To not make it last year was a disappointment. It fueled the motivation for this year.  We were driven to get back to the playoffs.”

The playoff dream almost died, however, as the Tigers suffered a 27-24 loss at home to Wabash in the fifth game of the year. Wittenberg trailed 13-3 at the half but nearly rallied for the win.

The Tigers maintained a fighter's mentality, though, and never lost again, rattling off five consecutive wins to close the regular season and clinch a share of the NCAC championship and a playoff berth thanks to winning a tiebreaker with Ohio Wesleyan.

“It was a tough loss, especially to a rival, but we got back to playing good football again,” Fincham said. “We knew to have a chance at the playoffs we had to win out. Our guys played hard and really grew up. Now, we are playing with house money. We have to put the Heidelberg game behind us and get ready to play a very good Hobart team. All we can do is play our best and see what happens.”

Hobart is unbeaten at 11-0 after rolling to a 38-20 win over Washington and Lee in its first playoff game.

Playing on the road won’t be easy, but the Tigers know that if they can play up to their potential, a trip to the national quarterfinals will become a reality late Saturday afternoon.

“We just have to stay focused and be ready to play for 60 minutes,” Williams said. “We have a good tradition here at Wittenberg. We expect to have success in the playoffs and hopefully we can play good enough to get another win. We want to keep this going as long as possible.”

Sep. 23: All times Eastern
12:00 PM
Massachusetts Maritime at Framingham State
Video Preview Live stats
12:00 PM
Muhlenberg at Juniata
Live stats
12:00 PM
Becker at Dean
Video Live stats
12:00 PM
Salisbury at TCNJ
Live stats Audio
12:00 PM
MIT at Catholic
Video Live stats
12:00 PM
Merchant Marine at Maine Maritime
Video
12:00 PM
Endicott at Hobart
Video Live stats Audio
12:00 PM
Nichols at Morrisville State
Video Live stats
12:00 PM
Stevenson at Delaware Valley
Live stats
1:00 PM
Widener at Albright
Audio
1:00 PM
Christopher Newport at Montclair State
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Bethany at Westminster (Pa.)
1:00 PM
Middlebury at Bowdoin
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Williams at Colby
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Amherst at Hamilton
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Ursinus at Moravian
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Trinity (Conn.) at Bates
Video Preview Live stats
1:00 PM
Brevard at LaGrange
Video Live stats Audio
1:00 PM
Geneva at Thiel
Live stats
1:00 PM
Mass-Dartmouth at Plymouth State
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Kean at Southern Virginia
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Frostburg State at Rowan
Video Live stats Audio
1:00 PM
Union at Curry
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Thomas More at Carnegie Mellon
Video Preview Preview Live stats Audio Audio
1:00 PM
Lycoming at King's
Video Live stats Audio Audio Tickets
1:00 PM
Husson at Western New England
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Johns Hopkins at Dickinson
1:00 PM
Wooster at DePauw
Video Live stats Audio
1:00 PM
Allegheny at Ohio Wesleyan
Video Live stats Audio
1:00 PM
Wilkes at Misericordia
Video Live stats Audio
1:00 PM
FDU-Florham at Lebanon Valley
1:00 PM
Rochester at Alfred
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Wesley at William Paterson
Video Live stats Audio Audio
1:00 PM
Maryville (Tenn.) at N.C. Wesleyan
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Huntingdon at Ferrum
Video Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Gettysburg at McDaniel
Video Video Preview Live stats
1:00 PM
RPI at Buffalo State
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Franklin and Marshall at Susquehanna
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Oberlin at Denison
Video Preview Live stats
1:00 PM
Westminster (Mo.) at Northwestern (Minn.)
1:00 PM
Crown at Eureka
Video Live stats
1:30 PM
John Carroll at Heidelberg
Video Live stats Audio Audio
1:30 PM
Otterbein at Ohio Northern
Video Live stats Audio
1:30 PM
Baldwin Wallace at Mount Union
Video Live stats Audio
1:30 PM
Defiance at Rose-Hulman
Video Live stats
1:30 PM
Muskingum at Marietta
1:30 PM
Franklin at Bluffton
Live stats
1:30 PM
Anderson at Hanover
1:30 PM
Mount St. Joseph at Manchester
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Worcester State at Westfield State
2:00 PM
Coast Guard at Norwich
Video Live stats Audio
2:00 PM
Bridgewater State at Fitchburg State
Live stats
2:00 PM
Wittenberg at Kenyon
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Hiram at Wabash
Video Video Live stats Tickets
2:00 PM
North Central (Ill.) at Millikin
Video Live stats Audio Audio
2:00 PM
Sewanee at Millsaps
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Birmingham-Southern at Rhodes
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Austin at Hendrix
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Greenville at Martin Luther
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Chapman at Trinity (Texas)
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Buena Vista at Loras
Video Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Washington U. at Wartburg
Video Preview Live stats
2:00 PM
Hamline at Gustavus Adolphus
Live stats
2:00 PM
Augsburg at Carleton
Video Live stats Audio
2:00 PM
St. Olaf at Bethel
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Dubuque at Luther
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Nebraska Wesleyan at Central
Audio
2:00 PM
Simpson at Coe
Video Live stats Audio
2:00 PM
Wheaton (Ill.) at Elmhurst
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
North Park at Illinois Wesleyan
Video Live stats Audio
2:00 PM
St. Norbert at Grinnell
2:00 PM
Ripon at Knox
2:00 PM
Iowa Wesleyan at MacMurray
2:00 PM
Hardin-Simmons at Howard Payne
Audio
2:00 PM
Southwestern at Louisiana College
Video
2:00 PM
Monmouth at Macalester
2:10 PM
St. John's at St. Thomas
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
Video Live stats Audio Audio
2:30 PM
WPI at Springfield
Video Live stats
3:00 PM
Beloit at Cornell
4:00 PM
Utica at Brockport
Video Live stats
4:00 PM
St. John Fisher at Hartwick
Audio
4:00 PM
Carroll at UW-La Crosse
4:00 PM
Minnesota-Morris at St. Scholastica
Video Live stats
4:30 PM
UW-Eau Claire at George Fox
Video Preview Preview Live stats Audio
5:00 PM
Salve Regina at Western Connecticut
Video Live stats
5:00 PM
Adrian at UW-Stevens Point
Video Live stats
6:00 PM
Tufts at Wesleyan
Video Live stats
6:00 PM
Methodist at Averett
Video Live stats
6:00 PM
Centre at Berry
Video Live stats Audio Tickets
6:00 PM
Lake Forest at Lawrence
Video Video
7:00 PM
Waynesburg at Case Western Reserve
Video Live stats
7:00 PM
St. Vincent at Grove City
Box Score Live stats
7:00 PM
Texas Lutheran at Mary Hardin-Baylor
Video Live stats Audio Audio
7:00 PM
Lakeland at UW-Platteville
Live stats Video
7:00 PM
Carthage at Augustana
Video Live stats
7:00 PM
Chicago at Illinois College
Video Preview Live stats
7:00 PM
McMurry at Sul Ross State
Audio
7:30 PM
Capital at Wilmington
Video Live stats
8:00 PM
Belhaven at East Texas Baptist
8:00 PM
Arizona Christian at Whittier
Video Live stats
Sep. 23: All times Eastern
12:00 PM
Stevenson at Delaware Valley
Live stats
1:00 PM
Wesley at William Paterson
Video Live stats Audio Audio
1:00 PM
Rochester at Alfred
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Johns Hopkins at Dickinson
Video Live stats
1:00 PM
Frostburg State at Rowan
Video Video Live stats Live stats Audio Audio Audio
1:30 PM
John Carroll at Heidelberg
Video Live stats Audio Audio
1:30 PM
Baldwin Wallace at Mount Union
Video Live stats Audio
2:00 PM
Wittenberg at Kenyon
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
Hardin-Simmons at Howard Payne
Audio
2:00 PM
North Central (Ill.) at Millikin
Video Live stats Audio Audio
2:00 PM
Wheaton (Ill.) at Elmhurst
Video Live stats
2:00 PM
North Park at Illinois Wesleyan
Video Live stats Audio
2:10 PM
St. John's at St. Thomas
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
Video Live stats Audio Audio
4:00 PM
Utica at Brockport
Video Live stats
7:00 PM
Waynesburg at Case Western Reserve
Video Live stats
7:00 PM
Lakeland at UW-Platteville
Live stats Video
7:00 PM
Texas Lutheran at Mary Hardin-Baylor
Video Live stats Audio Audio