NCAA Division-III Playoffs: R. 2, Warhawks v. Thunder
NCAA Division-III Playoffs
No. 8 Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks (10-1)
No. 4 Wheaton Thunder (11-0)
How They Got Here: Defending National Champion Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks finished second in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, posting a 6-1 record on their way to an overall mark of 10-1. After winning their first two games of the season by a combined score of 128-9, the team won by three and 10-points in its next two weeks before falling to conference champion Wisconsin-Oshkosh on October 10. That seemed to awaken the team, who put up at least 30-points, including two games where they scored 63, over the final five games of the regular season.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III playoffs the Warhawks shutout St. Norbert 48-0. Jordan Ratliffe’s 73-yard run for a touchdown got Whitewater rolling, and the Warhawks led 35-0 heading into the half. Ratliffe finished with 159-yards rushing on 17-carries, and Jarrod Ware added 91-yards and a touchdown on 13-carries. The defense got two sacks from Tim Regan as the defense held St. Norbert to just 13 first downs.
The Wheaton Thunder went 10-0 in the regular season, sweeping all seven of their College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin games to win the conference title for the second straight season. The Thunder’s toughest battle was a 17-9 victory on the road against No. 24 ranked North Central that cleared the pathway for them to win the title.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III playoffs, Wheaton downed Lakeland 55-6 as the Thunder jumped out to a 35-o half-time lead as well. Sola Olateju had two huge first half touchdowns and Adam Dansdill’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown added to the rout. The Thunder had to throw just nine passes in the victory as Wheaton rushed 56 times for 324-yards and 6 scores. The Wheaton defense held Lakeland to just nine first downs and 69-yards of total offense on 63-plays. They also generated five turnovers.
Ratliffe is the centerpiece of the Wisconsin-Whitewater offense. He gained 1,259-yards rushing and scored 18 touchdowns, while posting an impressive 6.7 yards per carry average.
Chris Nelson is the starting quarterback this season and he has done a great job leading the defending National Champions. Nelson completed 68.8 percent of his passes, leading to 1,989-yards passing and 17 TDs. Most impressive, the junior has thrown just two interceptions this season in 199-attempts.
On defense Ryan Winske and Vince Mason each intercepted five passes this season and combined for 12 pass breakups and 22 pass defenses. The two defensive backs are true ball hawks that dare opposing quarterbacks to throw their way.
The Wheaton Thunder are led by Olateju, who rushed for 864-yards and 9 TDs this season in just nine games. He is a load to try to bring down and knows how to find the hole and get through it with speed. His 7.4 yards per carry average testify to how good of a back this young man is.
Making plays in the passing game is what the Thunder defense does best. They have five players with at least three interceptions, led by Wes Cannonier who picked off six. Tyler Sigler intercepted four passes and three others had three each.
Logan McRae is a relentless pass rusher who has 8.5-sacks in 11 games. The linebacker can do it all, as he adds 13 quarterback hurries, 4 pass break ups and 4 pass defenses.
Outlook: This is a great matchup for sure. The Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks are looking to repeat as National Champions, but this team is not nearly as dominant as last year’s. The Wheaton Thunder have the key pieces to go a long way in the NCAA Division-III playoffs, and knocking off the National Champs would be a huge step forward. This Thunder defense is just too much. Take Wheaton in a close one, 21-17.
Featured Imaged Courtesy of Michael Hudson Photography
By Robert Pannier