BELTON — The Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks walked off the field at Crusader Stadium last December following a semifinal loss, took a long look at themselves and decided they needed to be a more physical football team.
A year later, they returned to the same venue and displayed — in clinical fashion, no less — the lesson they had learned.
UW-Whitewater was dominant in the trenches on both sides of the ball, shoving Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense up and down the field and stifling the Crusaders’ offense, and the 10th-ranked Warhawks eliminated No. 1 UMHB from the NCAA Division III playoffs with a 26-7 quarterfinal victory Saturday afternoon.
The outcome stopped the Crusaders’ 27-game win streak, ended their run of consecutive Stagg Bowl appearances at three and brought UMHB’s hopes of a second straight national championship to a screeching halt.
“It’s a very disappointing loss,” said Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg, whose program lost at home for the first time since Nov. 29, 2014. “We couldn’t get the defense off the field and couldn’t get our offense on track. That was the difference in the ballgame.”
That difference was glaring.
UW-Whitewater (12-1) possessed the ball for more than 42 minutes — almost three full quarters — churned out 239 yards rushing and limited UMHB (12-1) to only 140 total yards, including minus-3 on the ground.
“We came right out of the gate with the mentality that we were going to have to be the more physical team,” said Warhawks running back Jarrod Ware, who averaged 7.9 yards per carry while rushing for 110 yards and two scores. “They have a lot of speed out there and are very talented, but it was going to come down to who’s going to man up and be more physical.”
Behind its mammoth offensive line that includes four players who weigh 290 pounds or more, UW-Whitewater took the ball on its opening possession and covered 79 yards in 17 plays, using up 10½ minutes of the first-quarter clock. It ended with Wojciech Gasienica’s 19-yard field goal instead of a touchdown, but the tone was set.
“It was pretty exhausting all day,” said UMHB senior linebacker Tevin Jones, a Belton product who had 11 tackles in his final college game. “We knew coming in that if they could keep their offense on the field and our offense off, they were right in their element. That’s exactly what they did.”
After UMHB’s ensuing drive lasted less than a minute, UW-Whitewater needed 12 plays to march 64 yards in 8½ minutes — converting a third-and-8 and fourth-and-1 — for Ware’s 2-yard touchdown run and a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Crusaders finally got going late in the first half with a 44-yard drive. Senior quarterback Jase Hammack capped it by moving to his right to avoid pressure and throwing a 6-yard TD pass to Jonel Reed in the back of the end zone to get within 10-7.
A short ensuing kickoff and a UMHB penalty had the Warhawks in business at the Crusaders 41-yard line with 40 seconds to go, before Jones intercepted Max Meylor’s tipped pass. In possession at the UW-Whitewater 32 in the final half-minute, UMHB had a chance to tie it or take the lead but lost 31 yards on sacks over the next four plays, and the Warhawks took their 10-7 lead into the break.
“That loss last year was a great moment for our program in the sense of learning. The lesson we learned was that we had to play the game more physical up front,” said UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis, whose team advanced to face No. 8 St. John’s in next week’s semifinals. “We felt like it couldn’t be a stalemate up front today. We had to get a push, and that was our message all week.”
The second half was more of the same as UMHB’s offense continued to sputter and its defense became more and more worn down.
The Warhawks drove 85 yards in nine plays for Ware’s 5-yard TD run to begin the third quarter, and the Crusaders’ next possession ended when Nate Tranel intercepted Hammack at the UW-Whitewater 39.
After the Warhawks tacked on Gasienica’s 42-yard field goal two plays into the fourth, UMHB was driving at the UW-Whitewater 23 when a snap by freshman backup center Jacob Poston — subbing for injured junior Steven Sellers — went to Hammack’s left. The quarterback opted to try to pick it up instead of falling on it, and the Warhawks recovered with 10:14 left.
The final nail was Meylor’s 1-yard TD keeper to finish a nine-play, 67-yard drive with 4:34 remaining.
Hobbled in the second half after injuring a groin muscle just before halftime, Hammack finished 16-of-28 for 143 yards. Marquis Duncan managed 33 yards rushing on 10 carries as UMHB’s offense executed only 46 plays and averaged just 3 yards per snap. In addition to Ware’s production, UW-Whitewater got Alex Peete’s 76 yards rushing and Meylor’s 10-of-12 passing effort for 119 yards.
The Warhawks, who punted only twice, were 7-of-13 on third-down conversions compared to 3-of-10 for the Crusaders.
“(UW-Whitewater) is a very physical football team. We always take pride in being real physical. I don’t know if we were as physical as we wanted to be,” Fredenburg said. “I think we had guys playing really, really hard. They just ran out of gas and we didn’t have adequate backups.”