WHITEWATER, Wis. – It took a fourth quarter comeback by second-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater to finally hand No. 5 Linfield its first loss of the season, 27-17, in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday afternoon at Perkins Stadium.
The Wildcats fell short of reaching their eighth national championship game, but gave the host Warhawks their closest game of the season. Linfield, which captured both the Northwest Conference and West Region championships, concluded its season at 12-1. UW-Whitewater (14-0) advanced to their fifth consecutive Stagg Bowl to play defending national champion Mount Union, which beat Wesley (Del.) 24-7 in the other Division III semifinal.
The loss overshadowed a resilient effort by Linfield, which went into the game as the decided underdog. The Wildcats fell behind 10-0 in the first half, only to score 17 unanswered points to take command heading into the fateful fourth quarter.
Linfield quarterback Aaron Boehme matched UWW’s Jeff Donovan throw for throw. Boehme completed 26 of 38 passes for 278 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for a team-high 73 yards, including a 67-yard scamper that set up a touchdown.
Donovan, meanwhile, was 17 of 26 for 276 yards, but was sacked three times by a persistent Linfield defense
Clinging to a 17-13 lead, UWW grabbed control with 7:34 left in the game, scoring on Antwan Anderson’s 1-yard run. The Warhawks’ winning touchdown was set up by a 69-yard bomb down the right sideline to Jordan Wells, who was tackled just shy of the end zone by Drew Fisher.
The Warhawks added an insurance touchdown with 1:05 to go when Levell Coppage swept around left end 40 yards to put the game in ice.
Coppage, the West Region Offensive Player of the Year, rushed for 109 yards and scored two touchdowns.
The Warhawks played the entire game without a turnover against Linfield’s ball-hawking defense, which entered the game leading the nation in takeaways.
The Warhawks drew first blood following a first-quarter punt. All-West Region tailback Levell Coppage bolted 55 yards through the heart of the Linfield defense for a touchdown. Jeff Schebler’s kick made it 7-0 with 6:22 left in the quarter.
The Warhawks cashed in a the game’s first turnover for three more points. Boehme’s pass over the middle of the field was tipped and intercepted by Zach Christoperson at the Linfield 36. The Warhawks threw incomplete twice and the drive stalled, but Schebler came in to push the UWW lead to 10-0 with a 34-yard field goal with 4:32 left in the second quarter.
Boehme raced 69 yards on the Wildcats’ next offensive play, setting up a 9-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Henderson with under four mintues remaining.
UWW marched 63 yards in six plays, but quarterback Jeff Donovan was sacked by Jaymin Jackson with 38 seconds left in the half, giving the Wildcats substantial momentum heading into the halftime locker room.
Despite the close margin at intermission, UWW outgained Linfield 250-164, handing on to the ball for over 18 of the game’s opening 30 minutes.
Wildcats cornerback Nate Dixon led Linfield with 6 ½ tackles. Fisher added six stops.
“We knew they were going to be a very good football team,” said Wildcats coach Joseph Smith. “But we knew we had been tested already playing all the ranked teams we have this year. We positioned ourselves to win and it’s disappointing to let that slip away.”
‘CAT SCRATCH: Saturday’s attendance was 2,223….the loss halted Linfield’s 13-game winning streak…the Wildcats are now 25-15 all-time in the postseason.