NCAA D3 Final: UW Whitewater vs. Mount Union
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- They are fast becoming rivals as the powerhouse teams in small college football, the last two teams standing for the fourth straight season.
The Purple Raiders of Mount Union (14-0) and the Warhawks of Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-1) have met five times since 2002, and they will face off again Saturday in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl with the NCAA Division III national championship trophy awaiting the winner.
It doesn't get any better, Warhawks All-American linebacker Jace Rindahl said Thursday.
"To come here and play in the Stagg Bowl for the last game of your college career is something, I think, you dream about," he said. "To go into your last game knowing it is your last game and to win, and to go out on top, is how everyone wants to end their career."
The Purple Raiders will be making their 12th appearance in the game at Salem (Va.) Stadium and seeking their 10th national title, all under coach Larry Kehres in the past 16 seasons.
Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-1) is the defending national champion, having ended Mount Union's 37-game winning streak 31-21 last season. Mount Union, located in Alliance, Ohio, won it all in 2005 and 2006.
"We know what we're up against here," Kehres said this week.
But these teams have almost been completely remade since last year.
The Purple Raiders had just three returning starters on offense and three on defense, while the Warhawks have three offensive starters back, two on defense and will take the field at 11 a.m. on Saturday with just 25 players in uniform that made the trip in 2007.
Kehres said the notion of revenge isn't something his team embraces.
"The idea of revenge is just not a very healthy idea in any context -- sports, athletics or really otherwise," said Kehres, whose has a gaudy 274-21-3 record in 23 seasons.
"A lot of our men didn't play last year. They weren't on the field," he said.
Fortunately for Kehres, two who were will be again on Saturday, and they are the guys giving Warhawks' coach Lance Leipold nightmares as he tries to devise ways to slow them.
Tailback Nate Kmic, who last week became the NCAA's career rushing leader for all divisions with 7,986 yards, has 2,702 of them this year, and 43 touchdowns, an NCAA record.
And quarterback Greg Micheli has thrown for 3,481 yards and 34 touchdowns with just two interceptions and a 75.7 completion percentage in 2008. Micheli, in his third Stagg Bowl, also won the prestigious Gagliardi Award this week as the top player in Division III.
The Purple Raiders lead the nation in total offense, averaging 556.5 yards, and score an average of nearly 47. On defense, they allow 181 yards and 7.5 points, both national lows.
"If I look at their statistics too long, I'll end up having to cancel the trip," Leipold joked this week. "It's like, 'Why show up?' You've just got to try and come up with a way that we can play our best football, be sound, wrap up and tackle and make plays. If we don't do that, we're going to wind up being part of that big statistic that they've accumulated."
Of course, the Purple Raiders arrived sporting similar numbers a year ago, and two fumbles by Micheli and one by Kmic contributed to their loss, as did an early goal-line stand in which Kmic was stuffed on fourth down, giving the Warhawks an early confidence boost.
Kehres sees his team as the underdog this time around.
"When you are the champion, you are the champion, and the team they have this year is every bit as good as last year's team," he said. He also noted that while the Purple Raiders have been ranked No. 1 all season, the Warhawks have always been one coach's top choice.
"There's a possibility that could have been me," he said.
But the Purple Raiders surely are not immune to the pressure of expectations.
"It's kind of hard to live up to," linebacker Chas Yoder said. "There's a lot of tradition around here and you want to keep taking it to the next level as often as you can."
While Wisconsin-Whitewater's cast of skill players is almost all new, and no longer includes last year's game MVP and Gagliardi winner Justin Beaver, tailbacks Levell Coppage and Antwan Anderson have combined to rush for 2,512 yards and 32 touchdowns. Quarterback Jeff Donovan has thrown for 2,419 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"The names have changed in a lot of different places and it's really been an exciting year for us," said Leipold, who is 27-2 in two years leading the Warhawks. "It's really a total team effort on both sides of the ball ... to get us to this point, which also makes it very rewarding."
And, added Warhawks senior tight end Nick Slupski, a fine exclamation point.
"It's awesome to end a career this way," he said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)