SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — An achievement nearly 130 years in the making took slightly more than 21 hours to complete. The Wittenberg Tigers became the first NCAA Division III program to reach 700 all-time wins after completing a season-opening 45-28 victory over visiting Capital University in a game that was suspended overnight due to severe weather.
The Tigers held a 24-14 lead early in the third quarter on Saturday, but play was stopped when lightning was spotted in the distance. More than an hour later, the gathering storm clouds forced a postponement, and administrators from the two Central Ohio Lutheran-affiliated universities agreed to attempt to finish the game on Sunday.
When play resumed, the Wittenberg passing attack picked up right where it left off the night before. By game's end, senior Josh McKee (New Carlisle, Ohio/Tecumseh) had become the program's career receptions leader, senior Ben Zoeller (Lousville, Ky./St. Xavier) had set a new standard for passing yards in a game, senior Michael Cooper (Springfield, Ohio/South) had a career-best 193 receiving yards, including the second-longest touchdown reception in school history at 92 yards, and the Tigers had their first win over an Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC) opponent since 2001.
The win broke a five-game losing streak against Capital and a six-game skid against OAC rivals, but most importantly it got the 2011 season off to a strong start while creating a new benchmark for NCAA Division II or III programs. Eighteen NCAA Division I programs (Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision) had previously surpassed 700 wins, but Wittenberg is the first in either Division II or III. Click here to read complete news release and watch additional video.
The game opened in hot, humid conditions, which apparently suited the Tigers as they ran out to a 21-0 lead by the early part of the second quarter. Sophomore Logan White (Springfield, Ohio/Graham) made the most of his first career carry, opening the scoring with a 13-yard run with 10:57 left in the first quarter. That was followed by Zoeller's 92-yard scoring strike to Cooper — second only to a 94-yard hook-up between Greg Cornett and Skip Ivery in 2002 — and a four-yard TD catch by McKee from sophomore Reed Florence (South Charleston, Ohio/Southeastern).
Capital rallied to within 10 points by halftime, before play was suspended with 13:54 on the clock in the third quarter. When the game resumed on Sunday, Zoeller and McKee hooked up on third-and-15 for a 40-yard touchdown pass, but Capital answered with a long drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal.
Wittenberg put the game out of reach with two more long scoring strikes from Zoeller, first to Cooper covering 52 yards and then to McKee covering 29 yards. In between, the Tiger defense came up big, stopping the Crusaders on a fourth-and-1 situation near midfield. Junior defensive tackle Justin Bartlett (Washington, Pa./McGuffey) got penetration and knocked the Capital ballcarrier backwards to force a critical turnover on downs.
The Tigers piled up 556 yards of total offense in the game, compared to 362 for Capital. The difference was Wittenberg's passing attack, starting with Zoeller's 456 yards through the air, which broke the record of 439 set by Ryan Holmes in 2004 at Wooster. McKee hauled in nine passes, giving him 181 in his career — three more than Patrick Williams between 2006 and 2009. McKee finished with 159 receiving yards, followed by Cooper with 193. In addition, sophomore Jonathan Stoner (Bowling Green, Ohio/Bowling Green) contributed four catches for 44 yards and sophomore Brendon Cunningham (Kettering, Ohio/Fairmont) chipped in with three receptions for 48 yards.
While the Tigers' re-built defense allowed 28 points, the unit performed well considering several short fields created by turnovers. Three players — including two making their first collegiate starts — led the Tigers with 11 tackles each: sophomore safety Mark Swope (Fairborn, Ohio/Fairborn), senior linebacker Zach Hurtt (Fort Thomas, Ky./Highlands) and sophomore linebacker Spencer Leno (Massillon, Ohio/Washington).
The Tigers now face a slightly shorter week than normal to prepare for North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) rival Ohio Wesleyan on Saturday, Sept. 10. Wittenberg will take a 21-game regular season win streak into that contest, which kicks off a 7 p.m. at historic Selby Stadium. In addition, the Tigers are riding a 13-game NCAC win streak after capturing the last two conference titles without a loss.