In front a season-high 4,102 fans on a sunny fall afternoon, the Wittenberg Tigers overcame some uncharacteristic miscues to hold on for a 27-23 Homecoming victory over visiting Carnegie Mellon.
The Tigers, ranked No. 23 by the American Football Coaches Association and No. 26 (first among "Others Receiving Votes") by d3football.com, improved to 7-1 overall, heading into a much-needed week off. Wittenberg will close the 2011 regular season with its two most heated rivals, a road trip to 11th-ranked Wabash and a home date with Wooster.
The Tigers will carry a 17-game North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) win streak into the final two games of the campaign. The win over Carnegie Mellon was Wittenberg's 18th straight on its home field and four in a row over the Tartans.
None of those four wins have been easy. The script in the final game of the four-year series between Wittenberg and Carnegie Mellon, which dropped to 4-3, was similar to the first three: won by the Tigers by scores of 27-21 in overtime (2010), 28-7 (2009) and 21-14 (2008).
Wittenberg pushed out to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter after junior kicker Sean Williams (Plainfield, Ind./Plainfield) hit the two longest field goals of his career, from 40 yards out in the first quarter and 41 yards out in the second and then senior wide receiver Josh McKee (New Carlisle, Ohio/Tecumseh) hauled in a 36-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ben Zoeller (Louisville, Ky./St. Xavier) with 1:41 left before the intermission. But the Tartans responded with a 12-play drive that amazingly took just 1:36 off the clock and ended with a 38-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
Carnegie Mellon pulled to within three points with a touchdown to open the second half, but Wittenberg appeared to put the game out of reach with a 31-yard scoring connection between Zoeller and sophomore Brendon Cunningham (Kettering, Ohio/Fairmont) and McKee's second TD catch, this one covering 10 yards from sophomore Reed Florence (South Charleston, Ohio/Southeastern). McKee's two touchdowns gave him 44 in his career to break the NCAC record.
The Tartans rallied however, starting with an interception that was returned to the Wittenberg six yard line. One play later, Carnegie Mellon was in the end zone, and then the Tartans recovered a perfectly executed onsides kick.
Ten plays later, CMU was in the end zone again, but Wittenberg sophomore Josh Montgomery (Reynoldsburg, Ohio/Reynoldsburg) blocked the extra point. The Tartans elected to kick the ball deep with all three timeouts left and just under four minutes remaining, but Wittenberg responded with an efficient ball-control drive that ate up the rest of the clock.
The workhorse on the final drive was senior tailback Conner Warye (Maineville, Ohio/Kings), who finished with 115 yards on seven carries. He combined with senior tailback Corey Weber (Pataskala, Ohio/Watkins Memorial), who carried 24 times for 86 yards in the game, to lead the Tigers over 200 yards rushing for the second straight game.
The passing game was effected by brisk winds, with Zoeller finishing 13-of-23 for 227 yards. But he also had two interceptions, both of which led to second-half CMU touchdowns. Those turnovers, combined with a season-high 16 penalties for a whopping 141 yards, were key factors in Carnegie Mellon's rally.
McKee led Wittenberg's receivers with 108 yards on six receptions. The Tigers finished with 455 yards of total offense, featuring a good balance of 218 rushing and 234 passing. Carnegie Mellon countered with 317 yards of total offense, with 212 coming on the ground.
Defensively, senior linebacker Zach Hurtt (Fort Thomas, Ky./Highlands) led both teams with 14 tackles, to go along with an interception and two pass break-ups. Sophomore linebacker Spencer Leno (Massillon, Ohio/Washington) added eight tackles and key second-half interception.