‘Hawks move on in playoffs

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Dec. 3, 2014 By Andrea Sidlauskas

Three turnovers committed in a single game are usually enough to end a team’s season, especially in the second round of NCAA Division-III playoffs.

But the top-ranked Warhawks football team proved it was able to overcome adversity on Saturday as they continued their quest for back-to-back national championships in a 38-14 victory against No. 14-ranked Wabash College Little Giants (Indiana).

“It was a good win against a good football team,” head coach Lance Leipold said. “We put the ball on the ground more today than we did maybe all year, and you have to give credit to Wabash for their aggressive style of defense and physical hitting.”

The first half saw an uncharacteristic fumble and interception committed by the ’Hawks, as well as a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown by Wabash linebacker Ethan Buresh.

“It was a big game changer, I thought,” Buresh said. “We weren’t getting anything on offense or defense. We felt that we could win this game if we played our best.”

The Little Giants had plenty of opportunities to pull off an upset, but the Warhawk offense more than doubled the average yards allowed by Wabash, who led the nation in rushing defense, and racked up 479 total yards, compared to the Little Giants’ 234.

“It was definitely unacceptable the way we turned the ball over,” senior quarterback Matt Behrendt said. “We can’t have that, especially going into the next few rounds against good teams. But we did come back, and we still played great. Even for the amount of turnovers we had, we were moving the ball on offense.”

Behrendt threw 299 yards and matched a season-high four touchdown passes, three of which were caught by senior wide receiver Justin Howard, who totaled 126 yards in six catches.

Junior running back Dennis Moore ran for a career-high 107 yards on 22 carries, while senior wide receiver Jake Kumerow gained 75 yards in three receptions, including a touchdown, after a high ankle sprain sidelined him for several weeks prior to Saturday’s matchup.

“When Jake [Kumerow] is out there, he’s obviously a playmaker for us, so we always want him out there,” Howard said. “He made some big time plays for us, and I guarantee you’ll see him more in the upcoming games.”

Defensively, the Warhawks shut down the Little Giants’ run game, limiting their opponent to just 2.9 yards per carry, and forced three turnovers as well.

Junior linebacker Justin Dischler led the ’Hawks with 13 tackles and two forced fumbles. Senior defensive back Zach Nellis recovered one, while fellow senior defensive back Brady Grayvold scooped up the other.

Grayvold also put the final dagger in the Little Giants, as he returned an interception 34 yards for the ’Hawks’ final touchdown. It was his fourth career pick six, seventh postseason interception and 15th in his last 18 games.

“I’m very proud of the way our defense has played,” Leipold said. “About 57 minutes in this game, and last game as well, we haven’t given up a touchdown.”

A late fourth-quarter touchdown by Wabash running back Mason Zurek marked the first touchdown allowed by the Warhawk defense this postseason. With a 38-7 lead in the early fourth quarter, Leipold put in reserves for the remaining 10 minutes of play.

Until the second-stringers came in, the Little Giants had more penalty yards than offensive yards in the second half, and were held to just two first downs.

“Hopefully [the younger players] embrace the opportunity to be out there,” Leipold said. “It can do nothing but help build depth, and if you can get some guys some rest, it’s always good.”

With the second-round win, the Warhawks advance to the NCAA quarterfinals in which they will host fifth-ranked and undefeated Wartburg College (Iowa), who defeated St. John’s University (Minnesota), 21-10, on Saturday.

The victory also extended the ’Hawks’ win streak to 29 games, which remains the longest current run in college football, regardless of division.

“Every year, that’s our goal: make it as far as we can,” Behrendt said. “When it gets cold out, you know you’re doing the right thing.”

Kickoff is scheduled for noon on Dec. 6 at Perkins Stadium.

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