Matt Behrendt leads Wisconsin-Whitewater to NCAA Division-III Title
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater claimed their sixth title in the last eight years Friday night, with a 43-34 win over the Mount Union Purple Raiders. Riding an opportunistic defense and the arm of their star quarterback, the Warhawks were in control of this game, taking home the Stagg Bowl for the second straight season.
Behind star quarterback Matt Behrendt, the Warhawks got on the board on the first possession of the game. The senior QB remained poised in the pocket finding receivers to keep the chains moving. On the third play of the drive, Behrendt converted a huge third and seven play by finding Justin Howard down the seam for 24-yards to his own 49-yard line. On the next play he hooked up with senior Jake Kumerow for 11 more, and followed that with another completion to Kumerow, this time for 12-yards. Three plays later UWW was faced with a third and four, but it was the Behrendt-Kumerow connection for 8-yards that brought another first down. Running back Jordan Ratliffe carried the ball on the next two plays for 12 yards to the Mount Union 12. On the next play Behrendt passed to Howard for the score, and it was 6-0. The extra-point attempt was blocked.
The 6-0 Whitewater lead was the first time that Mount Union had trailed all season long. The Purple Raiders prolific offense entered the contest with an NCAA Division-III record for points in a season at 844, and their defense was second in the country in points allowed. For the first time they were facing the adversity of being behind, and it would be a real gut check for their team.
Mount Union started their first drive of the game from their 31, but after gaining an initial first down the Warhawks defense forced three incomplete passes and a punt. Behrendt was back on the field and early on the Purple Raiders defense had no answer for him.
Starting from his own 22, the UWW quarterback made a perfect touch pass to Kumerow for 36-yards on the second play of the drive to the Mount Union 42. Kumerow was well covered, but Behrendt’s pass dropped right into Kumerow’s lap, who made a great one-handed grab before stepping out of bounds. The Warhawks then moved the ball on the ground on the next seven plays down to the MUU 11. Two plays later Behrendt passed to freshman Ricky Finco who made a great catch to come down with the ball inbounds to make the score 13-0.
The Purple Raiders defense had been on the field for much of the first quarter and the team needed a score from their offense. QB Kevin Burke and his squad delivered quickly. Starting their next possession from their own 27, Burke led a four play drive that moved 73-yards in less than a minute to get Mount Union on the scoreboard. Burke completed all three of his passes, each for huge chunks of yards. His first pass went to Sherman Wilkinson for 17-yards. On the next play Burke found Roman Namdar for 31 more. Two plays later the Mount Union quarterback found Luc Meacham down the middle for 26-yards and the touchdown.
Each team would have a chance to put points on the board on their next possession, but both missed field goal attempts to keep the score 13-7. UWW was forced to punt on their next possession, and it looked like the momentum was shifting the Purple Raiders direction. That would not last for long, however. On the third play of the Mount Union drive, Burke’s pass was read perfectly by cornerback Brady Grayvold, who intercepted his eighth pass of the year and returned it 25-yards for the touchdown.
The turnover was costly, but this was not going to faze the two-time Gagliardi Award winner. On the second play of the drive, Burke found Namdar for 16-yards to the Mount Union 35. On the next play Logan Nemeth bull rushed through the line, refusing to be stopped on his way to a 16-yard pickup. Three plays later Burke kept the ball and burst outside for 24-yards before he was forced out of bounds at the UWW 16-yard line. A Burke completion to Taurice Scott put the ball at the 5, and two plays later Burke found Scott again for the touchdown making the score 20-14.
Again the Purple Raiders defense came up big, forcing the Warhawks to punt. Mount Union began the drive at their own 10-yard line with 57 seconds left in the half, plenty of time for this offense to score. Burke’s first pass of the drive was completed to Scott, but Marcus McLin stripped him of the ball and recovered the fumble, setting up his offense at the MUU 17-yard line. Behrendt took advantage of the field position right off, finding Kumerow over the middle for the 17-yard touchdown reception to make it 27-14.
There was 44 seconds left in the half and the Purple Raiders were looking for some points before the break. Burke looked to go deep on the first play, but his receiver was too late in looking back, and McLin played the ball perfectly to make the interception, returning it 28-yards to the Mount Union 28. The Warhawks were not even sure if McLin was going to be able to play as he had been battling a sore ankle all week, but he was making a huge impact on the game with two early turnovers.
From the 28, UWW looked to get some more points before the half. On the third play of the drive Behrendt passed to Joe Worth along the sidelines, where the receiver made an amazing catch to get possession of the ball while holding one toe on the ground to make the catch at the 6 yard line. Lake Bachar followed the catch with a 23-yard field goal to end the half, as the Warhawks entered the break ahead 30-14.
Three huge turnovers were the story in the first half, as they led to 17 Wisconsin-Whitewater points. The Purple Raiders entered the game as the highest scoring team in Division-III history, but UWW was holding them down. Burke was 10-19 in the first half for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns. It was a far from the six touchdowns he had by half the previous week.
The Warhawks offense was rolling using a very balanced attack. They had 105 yards rushing in the first half and 198 passing. Behrendt was near perfect, completing 19 of 23 passes for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Jordan Ratliffe had 13 carries for 77 yards.
Mount Union had the ball to start out the second half needing a spark from their offense, and they got it. Burke methodically moved the ball down the field with a series of short passes, completing 4 of his first 6 attempts for 28 yards. With it first and 10 at the UWW 29, the Purple Raiders QB went up top for Namdar who made the catch for the score, cutting the deficit to nine.
Once again the Mount Union defense forced a punt, and starting from their own 21 it was the Purple Raiders running game that led the charge. Nemeth had six carries on the possession for 37 yards, and he scored from 3-yards out to make it just a-two point deficit.
Time for the Purple Raiders defense to make a big play, and on the Warhawks’ next possession they delivered just that. On the third play of the drive Behrendt’s pass to Kumerow went through the receiver’s hands where it was picked off by Tre Jones, his seventh of the season. As the cornerback was returning the ball, Howard stripped it from him, and it looked like UWW was doing to get the ball right back, but Cody Pogorelc was able to fall on it to keep possession for Mount Union.
On the first play of the drive Nemeth burst ahead for 10-yards to take it the Wisconsin-Whitewater 7-yards line, and it looked like Mount Union was going to get a touchdown to take the lead, however, a personal foul penalty moved the Purple Raiders back 15-yards. The offense got 10 of it back, but they were forced to settle for a 29-yard field goal. Edward Ruhnke drilled it through the uprights, and for the first time in the game Mount Union had the lead.
The momentum had completely shifted Mount Union’s way, and Whitewater was looking for an answer to how to get their offense going. That answer was running back Dennis Moore. On the first play of the team’s next drive, Behrendt threw a little screen to the running back who took the ball, untouched, for 75-yards and the score. It was a stunning turn that gave the Warhawks back the lead, 37-31.
The play seemed to a take the wind of the Purple Raider’s sails. They were forced to punt on their next possession, and Behrendt looked to add to his team’s lead. His second pass of the drive was nearly intercepted on a play that would have likely been returned for a touchdown; Behrendt would not be so lucky on the next play however. His pass toward the right sideline was read perfectly by Nick Rodriguez and intercepted.
Burke had another chance to put his team back on top. The first play of the drive was a 9-yard catch by Namdar, and the Mount Union quarterback followed that with a 15-yard run to move the ball the Wisconsin-Whitewater 15. Two plays later Burke was looking for the score, but his pass was intercepted by Zach Nellis to end the threat.
Back the other way UWW went, and it was Moore who would play a significant role in the drive. On the fifth play of the drive, Behrendt tossed a little swing pass out to the running back who ran 33 yards to the Mount Union 35. Six plays later the drive stalled at the MUU 14. The Warhawks settled for a 31-yard field goal by Bachar, and UWW was up by nine.
The Purple Raiders responded with a field goal of their own. Burke continued to move the ball through the air. It looked like Mount Union had a touchdown on a 22-yard pass to Luc Meacham, but the play was called back on a holding call. Three plays later the drive stalled and Ruhnke nailed a 36-yard field goal to make it just a 6-point lead for Whitewater.
Wisconsin-Whitewater added a field goal on their next drive. Bachar capped off a 12-play drive with a 34-yard field goal that restored the 9-point lead.
The Purple Raiders had one last chance with the ball. They moved to the UWW 34, but Nellis intercepted Burke for the second time in the game to end the threat. The Warhawks offense ran out the last 1:34 to win the team’s sixth National Championship.
It was a very impressive performance by the Warhawks, whose offense put up 552 total yards. Behrendt finished 26-38 with 4 touchdowns to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Stagg Bowl. Ratliffe rushed for 116 yards on 24 carries, and Kumerow had 8 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown. Moore had 74 yards rushing and 108 yards receiving.
Burke finished 25-47 for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns, but his 4 interceptions were too much for the team to overcome. Nemeth had 90 yards rushing and a touchdown, and Burke added 79 on the ground. Namdar had 7 receptions for 135 yards and a TD.
The win is a bitter sweet one for Warhawks Coach Lance Leipold, who wins his sixth title, but it was also his last game as coach of the team. He will move on to the University of Buffalo, but he does so as the leader of the top team in Division-III football.
By Robert Pannier