By Andrea Sidlauskas
Nov. 18, 2015
It’s been said to save the best for last, and this past Saturday, that’s exactly what the Warhawk football team did.
An explosive start helped the ’Hawks, ranked No. 5 according to D3Football.com, rack up 595 yards of total offense – their highest output of the year – and pick up a season-high 28 first downs en route to a 63-14 defeat against UW-Stout in the Senior Day regular-season finale.
On the very first play of the game, senior running back Jordan Ratliffe ran 75 yards for a touchdown to give the ’Hawks a 7-0 advantage in just 13 seconds. He would go on to add another score and finish the contest with a career-high 217 yards on 19 carries to surpass the 1,000 yard mark this season.
“Being here there’s a lot of great backs; being in the conversation with them and keeping the tradition alive, getting 1,000 yards every year is big,” Ratliffe said. “I wanted to be a running back in this university and I take pride in that. Coach always harps on me, if you want to be good that’s fine, but a lot of people who play here want to be great, and I want to be that player who wants to be great.”
Ratliffe finished with 1,137 rushing yards to lead the WIAC and become the 12th-straight Whitewater running back to accumulate 1,000 yards in the regular season.
After another touchdown by the Warhawks, the Blue Devils answered back with a score ten minutes into the game, making them only the second team this season to register a touchdown against UW-Whitewater in the first quarter.
But the ’Hawks never let up.
“Our big thing really has been finishing,” head football coach Kevin Bullis said. “Whether it’s finishing blocks, finishing tackles, finishing a quarter, a finishing a half, finishing a drive. We talked to our guys about having one speed and playing that one speed. A primary goal for us was to play the game in that manner from start to finish.”
Junior quarterback Chris Nelson led the aerial attack, completing 18-of-24 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns in the first three quarters before handing the reins over to freshman Cole Wilber. Wilber ran for a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and threw 39 yards and completed 3-of-5 passes to bring the passing yard total to 257.
Junior wide receiver Marcus Hudson grabbed five passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns to lead the receiving corps, while sophomore tight end Tony Gumina contributed 58 yards and a score in seven receptions.
Defensively, the ’Hawks held the Blue Devils to just 80 yards on the ground and 3.36 yards per play to bolster their No. 10 rank in the nation in rushing defense.
Junior linebacker Paul Foster led the team in tackles with five, and senior defensive backs Shawn Shillcox and Ryan Winske each picked off UW-Stout’s second-string quarterback, Jay Alston.
Winske returned his interception 70 yards for his first career pick-six and the ’Hawks’ first defensive touchdown this season.
“It only took four years and the last regular season game to score on defense,” Winske said. “All the credit goes to the D-line; they put the pressure on the quarterback and the ball came right to me. From there I just had an open window.”
The Warhawks own a plus-10 turnover margin, good for first place in the WIAC and 27th in the nation. The nine turnovers committed by the ’Hawks this season are the lowest in the conference and 12th-lowest in Division-III, and the two interceptions are third-lowest in the nation.
Despite a dominant performance against the Blue Devils, Bullis said the team still has plenty to work on.
“A concern coming out of this game is the penalties,” Bullis said. “We gave up 45 yards of penalties on defense. That’s undisciplined. But you can say the same thing in the sense of those clips and those holding calls, that takes away a lot. It’s bigger than a 15-yard penalty.”
The regular season may have concluded, but the Warhawks have not played their last game yet. They will have an opportunity to amend those errors this weekend in their 10th NCAA Division-III playoff appearance in the last 11 seasons after receiving an at-large bid this past Sunday.
The ’Hawks, ranked No. 4 in the NCAA West Region, finished second in the conference with a 9-1 record and will host Midwest Conference Champion St. Norbert College (10-0) at Perkins Stadium for the first round of postseason play at noon on Nov. 21.
No matter the outcome, Bullis said this year’s crew of graduating seniors is special to him – and not just because they are his first group.
“One of the last things I said to them [in the spring meeting] was, ‘What are you going to do if you lose a game?’” Bullis said. “They made a plan in that meeting on how they were going to manage that loss if we had one. We hadn’t even gotten out of Oshkosh and I received a text from one of the seniors saying they were going to have a meeting with the players. They hold themselves to the fire.”