CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ind. - The Wittenberg Tigers jumped out to a 28-3 first half lead and carried the momentum to a North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) title-clinching 35-17 victory over host Wabash.
The win clinched at least a share of Wittenberg's 12th NCAC title since joining the league in 1989 and its fourth in the last five years. The Tigers will shoot for the outright crown in the regular season finale against winless Allegheny on Saturday, Nov. 16, at home at Edwards-Maurer Field.
The win also assured the Tigers, who improved to 8-1 overall and 8-0 in the NCAC, of a berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Wabash, which fell to 8-1 overall and 7-1 in the league, will have to win against DePauw next week and then hope for an at-large berth into the national competition, which begins with first-round action on Saturday, Nov. 23.
Wittenberg pounced on the Little Giants, who had beaten the Tigers each of the last two years, with a pair of first quarter touchdowns. Handed excellent field position after a series of Wabash miscues in the opening minutes, the Tigers capitalized with a two-play, 34-yard drive that was capped by 25-yard run by sophomore tailback Sean Gary (Indianapolis, Ind./Decatur Central). Just under nine minutes later, senior wide receiver Brendon Cunningham (Kettering, Ohio/Fairmont) hauled in a 13-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Reed Florence (South Charleston, Ohio/Southeastern) to round out a 10-play, 84-yard drive.
After Wabash responded with a 43-yard field goal, Gary went back to work, scoring on a six-yard run with 7:29 remaining. Then the Tigers essentially put the game out of reach with a stunning 89-yard drive to close the half. The key play was a third-and-12 connection between Florence and junior wide receiver Zac Wilson (Eaton, Ohio/Eaton) that covered 45 yards and set up an 8-yard scoring strike to Cunningham.
Wabash rallied to score touchdowns late in the third quarter and with just 11 seconds left in the game, but Gary scored his third touchdown with 3:36 left. The Tiger defense did the rest, holding Wabash 34 points below its season average.
Wabash came into the game ranked No. 1 nationally in several defensive categories, but the Tigers piled up 405 yards of total offense. Balance was the key as Gary spearheaded the ground game with a career-best 144 yards on 21 carries and Cunningham came up big in the passing game with nine receptions for 145 yards. Florence finished 16-of-31 passing for 260, but most importantly he didn't throw an interception against a defense that leads the nation in turnover margin.
Also of note, senior wide receiver Desi Kirkman (Lima, Ohio/Central Catholic) was outstanding in the return game, handling two kickoffs and four punts for a combined 101 yards, including a 40-yard punt return that set up a score.
Wittenberg's defense accumulated eight tackles for a whopping loss of 51 yards in the game, including four sacks for 34 yards lost. Junior linebacker Nick Gibson (Marysville, Ohio/Fairbanks) led the way with 13 tackles, while senior linebacker Spencer Leno (Massillon, Ohio/Washington) added 11 stops. Senior safety Mark Swope (Fairborn, Ohio/Fairbon) chipped in with nine tackles, including two for loss, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble.