By Erik Lewis
Finding their niche in the running game and defensively, the No. 6 Warhawks head to Stevens Point for a battle against the Pointers for one of their two remaining tests to their undefeated regular season.
After effectively shutting down a potent UW-Platteville offense and using deceptive pressure from the defense, the ’Hawks (8-0, 5-0 WIAC) find themselves in a position to win the conference and also avenge a tough, 17-14 loss in Stevens Point a season ago.
The loss knocked the ’Hawks out of playoff contention and also the hunt for a fourth straight Stagg Bowl victory.
“They’ve had a tough stretch,” head coach Lance Leipold said about the Pointers’ season. “I know they took great pleasure in knocking us out of the playoffs last year and I know it would probably put a positive on their season if they could do damage to us again.”
The Pointers (4-4, 2-3 WIAC) will undoubtedly try to play spoiler with their strong run defense. Their run defense is second to the ’Hawks in the WIAC, allowing only 93.6 yards per game.
Leipold knows it will be a battle with the No. 1 rushing offenses and defenses colliding. He hopes that the overall progression of the running game will provide the lift the offense needs.
“We’re a little bit different from our first game of the year, run game-wise, the play selection versus some of the things we’re doing now,” he said. “It was going to take a little bit for us to figure out what we were going to execute. I think we’ve kind of found our niche right now.”
Sophomore running back Jordan Ratliffe has been the most productive back with 518 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. That production has helped him get more touches as the season has progressed, which in turn has given the backfield consistency.
“It’s really been enjoyable to watch the evolution of our offense, especially in the backfield to see a guy like Jordan Ratliffe just kind of rise to the top in this thing,” Leipold said.
The ’Hawks offense – the best in the WIAC – has had struggles against stronger defensive teams, like UW-Oshkosh a few weeks ago. However, the “niche” that Leipold talked about should help.
“We’re going to continue to need to do that … A great defensive effort last Saturday and now we’ve got a different challenge,” Leipold said. “On the other side, Stevens Points’ defense is second in the league. I just think they’ve kind of been unfortunate their defense has been playing on a lot of short fields.”
There is a reason for those short fields. UW-Oshkosh’s offense has turned the ball over frequently this season.
Titans’ quarterback Mitch Beau has thrown nine interceptions this season, while the running game has lost 11 of 17 fumbles.
The ’Hawks defense has done well forcing and recovering fumbles – they’re a perfect 10 for 10.
When those fumbles are added with their 14 interceptions, the ’Hawks’ defense is boasting a +18 turnover margin, so there may be chances to give the offense some of their own “short fields”.
No matter the teams’ records going into the game, Leipold knows it will be a crucial game even with the proverbial “target” on their back being atop the conference.
“I don’t know if we need to worry about the big target,” he said. “We just need to go up to Stevens Point and find a way to win this conference championship.”