Defense anchors football team into NCAA quarterfinals

Seniors Troney Shumpert and Anthony White have been at the helm of the team’s No. 6-ranked defense. Photo by Tim Gumz.

At the football team’s annual media day session in August, Troney Shumpert had one main objective for his defensive unit in 2009.

“Our goal is to be better than we were last year,” the senior defensive back said.

More than three months later, as Shumpert and the Warhawks (12-0) head into Saturday’s NCAA home quarterfinal game against Wittenberg (12-0), that goal is a reality.

In 2008, the ’Hawks, who were welcoming eight first-time starters to the defense, allowed 13.5 points per game, 272.4 total yards per contest and gave up 44 combined points in the first quarter.

While those stats aren’t horrible, after looking at what the ’Hawks have accomplished through 12 games this season, it does not compare.

The defense, headed by defensive coordinator Brian Borland, has held opponents to 8.2 points per game, 233.1 total yards and has only allowed one touchdown in the first quarter all season.

Moreover, UW-Whitewater, which returned all but one starter from last year’s national runner-up team, is getting hot at the right time.

In the last three games, the defense has recorded 10 interceptions – three by senior defensive back Paul Wick and two by Zach Christopherson.

And including fumble recoveries, the ’Hawks have 13 takeaways dating back to their 58-21 win over the UW-La Crosse Eagles in the team’s regular season finale.

“Sometimes they happen in streaks for you,” head coach Lance Leipold said of the takeaways. “Your goals are the same. The game experience and the confidence the kids have [helps], and they’re making things happen.”

Wick set the tempo when he picked off Illinois Wesleyan quarterback Kraig Ladd in last Saturday’s 45-7 second round victory over the Titans less than one minute into the game. The interception gave Jeff Donovan and the offense the ball at the Wesleyan 7-yard line, setting up an early touchdown for the ’Hawks.

And the defense also overcame adversity when Wesleyan drove to the Warhawk 6-yard line following Donovan’s touchdown pass. Three plays later, however, Christopherson intercepted Ladd’s pass on third and goal.

Besides the interceptions last week, the defensive line, led by Anthony White and Wesley Hicks, prevented the Titans from accomplishing anything on the ground.

UW-Whitewater, which has only allowed three rushing touchdowns all season, limited the Titans to 12 rushing yards at halftime and minus -4 yards after three quarters.

“They have a great defensive line,” said Wesleyan junior running back Eli Williams, who was limited to 16 yards on nine carries. “They’re definitely the best defense we’ve played all season.”

Shumpert, UW-Whitewater’s defensive co-captain, is pleased by the way his team prevented Williams from finding any holes.

It’s definitely a great feeling,” he said. “Credit goes to those guys up front. They did an awesome job.”

Leipold credits the team’s success on defense this season by the way the ’Hawks continue to eliminate the opposition’s main weapons.

“Looking at the rushing statistics, if we can make teams one-dimensional you got a chance,” said Leipold, who was recently named the WIAC coach of the year. “We thought if we played physical football we’ve have a chance to wear [Wesleyan] down. I think there was a point where they just surrendered the running game.”

For the ’Hawks, though, they will hope on Saturday to continue their balanced offensive attack led by sophomore running back Levell Coppage and Donovan, the WIAC player of the year.

But it might be a difficult task since Wittenberg, at least statistically, has a better defense than UW-Whitewater.

The Tigers have the No. 1-ranked defense in the country allowing only 165.6 yards per game and seven points per game.

“At this stage they’re all going to be good,” Leipold said. “When there [are] eight teams left, everybody’s going to be a good football team.”

While Wittenberg has shut out two teams and have limited the opposition to single digits in nine of 12 games, they have given up 31 points in two postseason games.

And the Tigers will be contending with a high-octane offense that has put up at least 35 points in every game and more than 500 yards of total offense in eight of 12 games.

Donovan, who completed 21-of-28 passes for 271 yards against Wesleyan, doesn’t forsee any problems despite facing the top-ranked defense.

“It’s just the next step,” Donovan said. “Obviously we expected to win [against Wesleyan]. We did and everyone was kind of peeking at the scoreboard. We don’t know anything about [Wittenberg], but we’ll watch film like always, and we’ll be ready.”

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