Deja Vu: Warhawks advance to Stagg Bowl again

Freshman Josh Williams (55) and junior Luke Hibner (53) celebrate as senior wide receiver Jordan Wells’ 68-yard catch sets up the game-winning touchdown. Photo by Tim Gumz.

The pieces have been in place all season.

Now, more than three months after the football team’s opening game in Dickinson, N.D., the puzzle is almost complete.

This final piece to the Warhawks’ perfect campaign and second national championship in the last three years could be put into place Saturday in Salem, Va.

UW-Whitewater (14-0) will battle No. 1-ranked Mount Union (14-0) for the fifth straight season in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. The game is scheduled for 10 a.m. CST and will be broadcast live on ESPN 2.

“This never gets old,” Lance Leipold said regarding his third trip to the national championship game as the UW-Whitewater head coach. “To have a chance to compete with a program with the tradition of Mount Union is a great feeling.”

But the ’Hawks almost didn’t make it back to the Stagg Bowl since Leipold’s undefeated squad had to overcome a feisty Linfield team in the national semifinals.

“When those final seconds were ticking down, I was happy for our players and our assistant coaches, because they have put so much time and hard work in,” Leipold said after an emotional 27-17 victory last Saturday. “Since the start of the second semester last year, they have dedicated themselves for another opportunity to go to Salem.”

But many of the players never wanted to mention words like “Salem” or “Mount Union” throughout the season.

Instead the team, which returned all but four starters from last season’s national runner-up team, wanted to approach every game with the same mindset.

“We’re not going to be the best team if we’re just going to listen to people telling us we’re the best team,” senior quarterback Jeff Donovan said at the team’s preseason media session in August.

That mentality has helped Donovan, the WIAC player of the year, have a banner season in which he threw 27 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres knows that it will be a challenge to stop Donovan and an offense that has scored 30 or more points in every game this season.

“He’s got one of the better arms in Division III, and he’s a veteran quarterback,” Kehres said. “By the time you’ve played 20 games as a starter, quarterbacks keep those interceptions at a low percentage.”

But Leipold said getting this deep into the postseason once again has not been a one-man wrecking crew.

“This isn’t about one person,” the WIAC coach of the year said. “It hasn’t been and it never will be.”

It wasn’t on the team’s game-winning drive against Linfield when the ’Hawks’ backs were to the wall.

Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter and needing to go 77 yards, Donovan found junior wide receiver Aaron Rusch – who became UW-Whitewater’s all-time receptions leader earlier this season – for eight yards to start the drive.

One play later, Donovan found senior wide receiver Jordan Wells – who broke a tackle down the right sideline to get down to the one-yard line on a play that ultimately went for 68 yards.

“[Jordan] understood the magnitude of the game,” Donovan said. “He put it in his own hands.”

To cap it off, junior backup running back Antwan Anderson, who was sidelined early in the season with a right leg injury, dove in for the score on the very next play.

Three plays and three different offensive weapons, while Levell Coppage, D3football.com’s West Region player of the year, didn’t even have to touch the ball.

Defensively, the ’Hawks have also been stout all season, and Kehres recognizes that his offense will have to be resourceful, especially if his quarterback Kurt Rocco, who suffered a concussion in the Purple Raiders’ semifinal win, can’t play.

“They’re solid at all positions,” Kehres said. “Their safeties can tackle, their corners are good cover men, and their linebackers are very active players.”

Leipold acknowledged his team has been surging of late on the defensive side of the ball, as the ’Hawks have forced 14 turnovers in four playoff games.

But again – like the offense – Leipold stressed the team wouldn’t be heading to the Stagg Bowl if one player did it all.

“It’s been such a collaborated effort for different guys to step up,” Leipold said.

That includes backup defensive back Jeremy Deibert.

He clinched the team’s berth into the title game with his interception late in the fourth quarter when Linfield had one last chance to tie the game or win it.

“Jeremy was a starter last year and here he comes up with a big play in his last game at Perkins Stadium,” Leipold said. “When you see guys who have taken their roles, accepted them and this whole thing comes together. Things like that make this rewarding. It gives us a chance to win a national championship.”

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