Wisconsin-Whitewater and Morningside (Iowa) Lock Horns in Battle of Unbeatens

Morningside football suffered its first loss of 2015 (Photo / MC Athletics)

Sioux City, IA – Last Thursday night, the Morningside College Mustangs (NAIA) hosted the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks (NCAA, Division III) in America’s best small college matchup of the week, and perhaps the season. The game was televised nationally on ESPN3.com

The UW-Whitewater Warhawks (4-0) are the two-time defending Division III champions and came into the game riding a 34-game winning streak and ranked #1 in the NCAA-Division III polls. Morningside was ranked #1 overall in the NAIA poll.

As a steady rain fell and winds gusted through Sioux City’s Elwood-Olsen Stadium, the Warhawks pulled out a hard-earned 33-30 victory in the game’s waning moments.

Wisconsin-Whitewater has captured six of the last eight NCAA III titles and extended their winning streak to 35 games with the win. It is the longest active win streak at any level in college football, and the Warhawks haven’t dropped a game since October 2012.

The Mustangs offense countered the Warhawks’ formidable team streak with strong individual performances. Running back Tyler Kavan rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Ryan Kasdorf was good on 17 of 23 through the air for 261 yards and a touchdown. Of the 261, 137 yards were to receiver Connor Niles, who hauled in nine passes.

The Warhawks vaulted to a 7-0 in the first quarter on a five-yard keeper by Chris Nelson. They extended their lead to 10-0 when kicker Ben Franzen put through a 22-yard field goal early in the second quarter. 

Morningside closed within 10-7 after Kasdorf completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Briar Evans to polish off an impressive 11-play, 75-yard drive. Shortly after the Warhawks caught a break when a Nelson pass was deflected by the Mustangs’ defense but still found its way to the Warhawks’ Tony Gumina. Gumina then sprinted to the end zone to complete a 54-yard touchdown pass play.

Morningside blocked the PAT, and the score was 16-7 with 9:44 left to go in the first half. 

The Mustangs’ defense forced a turnover to help the hosts close within 16-14 at the intermission. Walker stripped the ball from the Warhawks’ Joe Worth, and the Mustangs recovered and advanced the ball to the Wisconsin-Whitewater 23-yard line. Morningside scored four plays later on a two-yard touchdown run by Kasdorf.

Wisconsin-Whitewater used a pair of third-quarter scores with a 44-yard field goal by Lake Bachar and a three-yard touchdown run by Ratliffe to open its largest lead of the game at 26-14 with 2:00 left in the quarter.

Senior Zac Schlueger registered a game-high 13 tackles for the Mustangs including one sack and two TFLs totaling eight yards. Taylor James followed with ten tackles; Ethan Stofferan posted nine. And Christian Walker had his best night of the season with eight tackles, a forced fumble, and a blocked PAT. Sean Fitzgerald had eight tackles recovered a fumble, blocked a field goal and had a 1/2 sack along with Jason Lupkes. 

Momentum swung in the Mustangs favor as they scored 16 straight points to take the lead. The go-ahead touchdown was a 46-yard jaunt by running back Tyler Kavan with less than 30 seconds remaining in the third.

On their next possession, Morningside moved the ball 89 yards on a drive that included a Kasdorf to Niles connection for 59. Kavan again closed out the score with a 17-yard run. The Warhawks trailed 27-26 with 6:45 remaining. It was a rare deficit for the Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Nelson fumbled on the ensuing drive for Wisconsin-Whitewater and Morningside recovered at the Warhawks 17. Two penalties pushed them back out of touchdown range, and they settled for a 36-yard field goal from Jared Amundson. Given the elements, it was a solid kick. That put Morningside up 30-26 with 4:19 remaining.

Wisconsin-Whitewater proved their mettle when they returned fire by methodically marching 75 yards in eight plays, capping the drive with a six-yard touchdown run from senior Jordan Ratliffe. Ratliffe rushed for 198 yards on the afternoon and consistently moved the pile when he appeared to be stopped on the play.

The Warhawks took the lead with :38 left in the game and that ultimately proved the difference. 

Next week the Mustangs take on the NAIA’s 10th-ranked Northwestern (Iowa) Red Raiders. The Red Raiders (3-1) are coming off a 28-21 setback to unbeaten Doane (Neb.) (4-0).