SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — A 21-point third quarter outburst - fueled by two turnovers and a blocked punt by an opportunistic, hard-hitting defense - gave the Wittenberg Tigers the necessary momentum to pull away from the College of Mount St. Joseph for a 42-14 win in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament.
The Tigers, ranked No. 11 in the nation by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) and No. 12 by d3football.com, improved to 11-0 on the 2009 campaign after earning the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) automatic berth into the national competition. Mount St. Joseph, ranked 23rd by the AFCA and champion of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, saw its season end at 9-2 overall.
It was the first meeting between the two programs, but it was far from Wittenberg's first rodeo in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Tigers are now 18-10 all-time in the national competition, which was first contested in 1973, and 6-0 in first round home games. Mount St. Joseph dropped to 0-5 in NCAA Division III Tournament play after reaching the postseason for the fifth time in the last six years.
Photos at right courtesy of David Rich, d3football.com.
The final score does is not indicative of the draw the two teams played to over the opening 30 minutes of the game. Mount St. Joseph became the first team in 2009 to score a point against Wittenberg in the second quarter of a game, completing a dramatic 30-yard touchdown pass from Craig Mustard to Mike Zeis with just 29 seconds left before halftime. That evened the score at 7-7 after senior quarterbackAaron Huffman (Newark, Ohio/Newark) had given the Tigers the lead with a five-yard TD run at the 8:25 mark of the second frame.
That score came after an interception by senior cornerback Brandyn Brown (Louisville, Ky./Male), and it was a harbinger of things to come, as it turned out. In the third quarter, senior cornerback Keenan Freeman (Fairborn, Ohio/Greenon) blocked a punt to set up a six-yard scoring run by sophomore tailback Conner Warye (Maineville, Ohio/Kings) that broke the tie. Before the end of the quarter, the Tigers had taken advantage of a fumble recovery by senior defensive end Taylor Scherer (Crestwood, Ky./S. Oldham County) and an interception by junior linebacker Brad McKinley (Hilliard, Ohio/Davidson) to run the margin out to 28-7 on touchdown runs by Huffman and sophomore wide receiver Josh McKee (New Carlisle, Ohio/Tecumseh).
After Mount St. Joseph converted a key fourth down and scored on its first drive of the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass from Mustard to running back Jake Davis, the Tigers struck quickly as Huffman hit sophomore receiver Michael Cooper (Springfield, Ohio/South) on a slant that he turned into a 65-yard scoring play. Warye then put the game completely out of reach, going 13 yards to paydirt with 7:23 left on the clock.
Wittenberg moved the ball to the one-yard-line in the final minute before taking a knee on fourth down to account for the final margin of victory. The win earned the Tigers a second-round home game against Trine University, champion of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association and a 51-38 victor over Case Western Reserve in the opening round.
While the Lions were the first team in 2009 to score two touchdowns in a game against Wittenberg and became just the third team to top 200 yards of total offense against the Tigers, Mount St. Joseph was still outgained in the game 524-226. Individually, Cooper led both teams with a whopping six receptions for 144 yards, followed by McKee with three catches for 53 yards. Huffman finished 12-of-23 for 209 yards, in additoin to 11 rushes for 30 yards and two touchdowns - giving him seven on the ground in the last three games.
The key for Wittenberg, which struggled mightily on offense through the first 30 minutes, was a punishing, diversified rushing attack. Junior tailback Corey Weber (Pataskala, Ohio/Watkins Memorial) led with 24 carries for 128 yards, followed by Warye with 16 for 88 and senior tailback Jeff Wilbur (Ann Arbor, Mich./Community) with six rushes for 61 yards.
Mount St. Joseph got 76 yard rushing from Davis and Mustard finished with 10 completions in 20 attempts for 121 yards. The Lions, who had scored at least 24 points in every game before losing back-to-back games to Thomas More and Wittenberg to close the season, were held in check by a total team defensive effort.
Sophomore linebacker Zach Hurtt (Fort Thomas, Ky./Highlands) led the defense with 10 total tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble. McKinley added eight tackles, including two for loss and the aforementioned interception, and senior linebacker Kyle Lohrman (Loveland, Ohio/Loveland) chipped in with eight tackles of his own.