|The balanced offensive attack starts with an experienced offensive line boasting four all-conference performers.
Russ DeHoedt, d3photography.com
By Ryan Tipps
Wartburg is dynamic on defense, has an overwhelming offensive line and is packed with proficient playmakers.
You know what other alliteration they are fond of? Wartburg winning.
The first two playoff games may have looked very different for the Knights -- a narrow overtime win in Round 1 against Franklin followed up by a decisive 49-7 stomping of Trine -- yet the resulting victories have catapulted the team into tying a school record with a 12-win season. Next up is a quarterfinal showdown with defending national runner-up UW-Oshkosh.
“A couple of us are seniors now, and while we made it deep in the playoffs our freshman year and were a part of that team, we weren’t a big factor then,” said senior left tackle Derek Schipper. “Now we have the experience.”
While much of the credit for the team’s offensive growth goes to star skill players such as Gagliardi Trophy semifinalist Matt Sacia, who has 2,958 yards passing and 33 touchdowns, Riley Brockway, who has caught for more than 1,300 yards this fall, and a couple of running backs, the balance that Wartburg has been able to achieve began in the trenches.
“Being able to run and throw with equal effectiveness is a very fundamental part of our offensive philosophy; it’s something that we’ve been doing a good job with all year,” said head coach Rick Willis. “And the offensive line plays a major role in that -- they have to be able to be physical as run blockers as well as do a great job with pass protection.”
Through the 12 games this season, Wartburg is averaging 464 yards a game -- 214 rushing and 250 passing. Many of the year’s most explosive plays have been runs, and that has helped Sacia make the most of the run-pass option.
There are six players who are regulars in the offensive line rotation, and all have stayed healthy since the beginning. Four of the linemen were named to the All-IIAC list, including Schipper, who was a first-teamer.
About half of the line was intact from last season, but among those who stepped up to fill a graduation hole was center Tom Schiffer. His leadership and direction ahead of the snap has made the front five more dominant and more responsive to what defenses present.
“Tom has done a great job this year taking over at center,” Schipper said of his teammate. “He’s really the heart and soul of this O-line.”
The unit’s performance has been important to the development of the team, particularly after coming off of a disappointing 6-4 season in 2016, which is shoulder to shoulder with the worst records the Knights have posted in the past two decades.
|Left guard Nic Vetter and left tackle Derek Schipper have helped quarterback Matt Sacia put up over 3,000 yards of offense this year.
Russ DeHoedt, d3photography.com
“We had a nice run in ’13, ’14, ’15, and we lost a whole bunch of guys last year. And there’s no substitute for experience, which we gained in the ’16 season. That’s showing up this year,” said Willis, who is in his 19th year at the helm of Wartburg and just won his fifth conference Coach of the Year honor.
Wartburg didn’t land in the Top 25 poll until the sixth week of the season, and there were perhaps some questions lingering as the Knights needed to thwart a Franklin two-point conversion attempt in overtime to win the playoff opener.
But there’s something to be said for gaining confidence against stiffer competition, adapting to the playoff atmosphere and being prepared for things that may be unfamiliar on the field.
“A lot of us didn’t have experience in the playoffs; we knew it was going to be cranked up and it was going to be a different atmosphere,” Schipper said. “But that first game really was crazy. I’ve never been a part of a game like that.”
Franklin and Trine each presented an offense that challenged Wartburg’s defense in a unique way, but it was clear with the way that Trine’s attack was thoroughly stifled that it was a matchup the Knights were prepared for.
“They were very different styles of teams, especially offensively. The Trine matchup was perhaps more favorable to us, with the running style that they use,” Willis said. “And getting off to a really good start helped. Momentum is such a big deal.”
In the same way that the Wartburg offense has benefitted from the experience of playmakers such as Sacia under center, the defense has found a solid recipe in its veteran players. Each defensive position group has a fifth-year senior among its ranks: the front unit has Blake Beckman, the linebackers have Rob Rottler, and the secondary has Chris McNutt. Couple that with some position changes that have improved the defense’s speed, and it becomes apparent why a team that gave up 25 points a game in 2016 is now giving up only 16 a game and is three rounds deep into the postseason.
It’s a return to form for the Knights. Last year appears to be the anomaly, a season cast aside as somewhat of a rebuilding year for a team that had an already solid foundation. The experience of this year’s starters and the desire to prove themselves have given the Knights the opportunity to square off against UW-Oshkosh, albeit on the road for the first time this postseason.
For the players, it’ll be a week like every other in a lot of ways: hitting the weights, watching game film, digesting every morsel the coaches throw at them, all in the hopes of gaining an advantage over their opponent. What’s different, however, is that on the horizon is the season’s toughest opponent, and there’s an opportunity to make the special year of 2017 something even greater, something historic.
“I didn’t know how this year was going to go -- you never really know after last year,” Schipper said. “I knew we had some good players on both sides of the ball, but once we got some momentum and kept winning, things really started looking up.
“Now we sit here ready to play our 13th game of the year -- it’s really wild.”