Justin Howard grabs game-winning touchdown pass

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Nov. 19, 2014 By Andrea Sidlauskas

The Warhawk football team is no stranger to a blowout. But a nail-biter is another story.

Trailing 25-21 with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter against UW-River Falls on Saturday, senior quarterback Matt Behrendt hit senior wide receiver Justin Howard on an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the ’Hawks a three-point advantage with just under 30 seconds remaining.

UW-RF quarterback Ryan Kusilek attempted a hail mary pass with three seconds left, but the throw went incomplete and resulted in a 28-25 victory for the ’Hawks.

“You have to give a lot of credit to River Falls,” head coach Lance Leipold said. “They came out and played really well. I don’t think it was our best performance of the year by any stretch, but I’m awful pleased with the way we battled back in the last minute and found a way to pull it out.”

Although the Falcons outrushed the ’Hawks by 30 yards, the ’Hawks led the game through the air, totaling 273 yards compared to the Falcons’ 222.

Behrendt led the aerial attack, completing 25-for-38 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and Howard matched a career-high 11 receptions for 128 yards and to go along with a game-winning touchdown.

With senior wide receiver Jake Kumerow, a preseason All-American, still out due to injury, freshman wide receiver Ricky Finco also stepped up for the ’Hawks, grabbing a career-high seven passes for 62 yards and his second touchdown of the season.

The first two Warhawk drives ended in touchdowns, and the game appeared to be heavily slanted in their favor.

But the Falcons answered back with an 82-yard drive that took almost nine minutes off the clock, and their defense stopped the ’Hawks on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line in the second quarter.

“We left opportunities out there, and it was disappointing,” Leipold said. “We gave up some big plays defensively which is uncharacteristic of us, but hopefully it’s a blessing that we can grab their attention. We have to get a lot better if we’re going to have a chance to play very long in the postseason.”

The Falcons’ balanced offensive attack tallied 394 total yards, but the Warhawk defense was able to hold the Falcons from scoring the extra-point field goal and two-point conversion attempt on their first two scores.

Junior linebacker Justin Dischler led the ’Hawks’ defense with eight tackles, while junior defensive back Ryan Winske also made eight tackles and caught an interception – his second of the season.

Senior defensive lineman Mykaell Bratchett registered three tackles, and ties for the team lead and seventh in the conference with junior defensive lineman Zach Franz in sacks.

“Defensively, there are certainly some things that we need to, and certainly will, address,” Bratchett said. “It was not our best competition of the year, but the thing I am excited about is how guys kept themselves in the game even with the demand of in-game adjustments.”

With their 28th-straight win, the ’Hawks finished their regular season schedule undefeated for the seventh time in the last decade.

“We’ve been very fortunate this year, and in the last 10 years,” Leipold said. “This program had a lot of success. To win an outright championship is special, so at the end of the day, I think we still have a lot to be proud of because we could’ve definitely let that thing slip away, and I’m proud of the way this group has worked.”

The team clinched the WIAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division-III Playoffs Nov. 8 after a victory against UW-Stevens Point and learned their fate Nov. 16 during the Selection Show.

The Warhawks will host the first round of playoffs against a team they have yet to face: Macalester College (Minn.) at noon on Nov. 22 in Perkins Stadium.

“It is great that we have the opportunity to host playoffs here in our own backyard,” Bratchett said. “I am sure our fans, who I would say are some of the greatest fans in the world, certainly love it as well.”

While the ’Hawks enter the playoffs as the defending national champions, Macalester (9-1) is making its first appearance in the tournament.

“Any speculation is energy I need to spend in other directions,” Leipold said. “[We’re going to] control what we can and then get ready to play our best game.”