WOOSTER, Ohio — The Wittenberg defense came up with the big plays when they were needed the most, keying a fourth-quarter rally that gave the Tigers a 22-17 win over host Wooster and their second consecutive outright North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) championship.
Wittenberg's 20th straight regular season win and 13th straight NCAC win secured the program's 19th undefeated regular season at 10-0 and the conference's automatic berth in the 2010 NCAA Division III Tournament. Wooster, the last team to defeat the Tigers in either NCAC action or the regular season in 2008, dropped to 5-5 overall and 4-2 in the league. A Wooster win would have forced a three-way tie atop the NCAC and given Wabash the automatic berth by virtue of tiebreaker criteria.
Like Wittenberg's first three ventures away from home this season, however, the win was anything but a sure thing until the final minute. Trailing 17-16 with 3:01 to play, senior safety Ty Whittington (Sabina, Ohio/East Clinton) came up the biggest play of his collegiate career, coming up with a tipped pass at the 50-yard line. The Tigers then marched downfield and punched the ball into the end zone with 1:23 left on a four-yard run by junior quarterback Ben Zoeller (Louisville, Ky./St. Xavier). After the two-point conversion pass was ruled incomplete, the Tigers led 22-17.
That left it up to the defense again, and the senior-dominated line made the lead stand up this time. Senior tackle Adam Kattoua (Columbus, Ohio/Upper Arlington) got pressure on the quarterback on third down to force an incompletion and then senior end Eddie Vallery (South Solon, Ohio/Madison Plains) came up with his second sack of the second half on fourth down to effectively end the game.
The Tiger defense was dominant for most of the second half, except for one Wooster drive. After Wittenberg had taken a 16-10 lead on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Zoeller to junior wide receiver Josh McKee (New Carlisle, Ohio/Tecumseh) early in the fourth quarter, the Scots put together an 11-play, 50-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 19-yard touchdown pass on third-and-15.
Wooster managed just 235 total yards in the game, but they still put up 17 points thanks to the combination of tailback Robert Flagg, who rushed for 66 yards and caught 10 passes for 47 yards, and freshman quarterback Richard Barnes, who threw for 193 yards. But Wittenberg sacked Barnes four times and intercepted him three times to give the Tiger offense just enough opportunities.
Zoeller topped the 300-yard mark for fifth time in 2010, piling up 304 yards on 19 completions in 40 attempts. He broke Aaron Huffman's 2009 record of 2,737 passing yards in a season, pushing his total to 2,886. His favorite target was McKee, who finished with eight catches for 143 yards and a touchdown to give him school records of 64 receptions, 1,354 yards and 16 TDs on the season. Senior wideout Anthony Kralich (Kettering, Ohio/Alter) added four catches for 118 yards, and the tailback duo of senior Corey Weber (Pataskala, Ohio/Watkins Memorial)and junior Conner Warye (Maineville, Ohio/Kings) combined for 105 yards on the ground.
Sophomore kicker Sean Williams (Plainfield, Ind./Plainfield) played a key role in the game for Wittenberg, hitting all three of his field goal attempts. Now with 12 on the season, Williams tied the season record held by Rob Vaka in 1988 and Ryan Walker in 2000.
Vallery paced the defense with a season-best 10 tackles, and he was credited with four quarterback hurries to go along with his two sacks and three total tackles for loss. Senior cornerback Keenan Freeman (Fairborn, Ohio/Greenon) added nine tackles and key first-half interceptions, and senior linebacker Brad McKinley (Hilliard, Ohio/Davidson) was outstanding as usual with nine tackles. That ran his season total to a team-leading 95 and his career total to 404, third-most in school history.
The conference title was an NCAC-best 10th all-time for the Tigers. Wittenberg will make its 14th appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament, starting Saturday, Nov. 20, against an opponent to be determined. The Tigers will learn their postseason fate during the NCAA selection show on Sunday afternoon.