Above photo courtesy of the UW-Whitewater Athletics Department
WHITEWATER, Wis.- Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis knows the matchup between his Warhawks and the visiting University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders well. Prior to taking the head job in 2015, he was an assistant for six seasons at UW-Whitewater. In the span of his time in Whitewater, the Warhawks and Cru have battled four times on the gridiron. But each of those contests, including Whitewater’s 26-7 quarterfinal victory in 2019, have been contested in Belton. This year, however, it will be UMHB making the trip north for the semifinal matchup.
“As much as I love going to visit Texas,” Bullis told reporters Monday, “there’s nothing like home sweet home.”
While UW-Whitewater has the advantage of playing in Perkins Stadium, its home field since 1970, and in front of its fanbase, Bullis is not expecting anything close to an easy victory. In fact, the sixth-year head coach described the contest between UMHB and the Warhawks as a “dogfight” in a conference call with media members early in the week.
“A lot of people talk about our tradition of playing Mount Union, but our tradition of playing Mary Hardin-Baylor, goodness gracious,” Bullis said. “It’s a dogfight. I’m talking about 15 years of it, going back to Coach Berezowitz and Coach Fredenburg.
“My hat’s off to [Coach Fredenburg], a gentleman who built that program from the ground up and continues to build it. We talked on the phone yesterday and he put a smile on my face. There’s nothing like getting a chance to see him and compete with his team because you know it’s going to be a fantastic game.”
Both squads are coming off convincing victories in the quarterfinal round, with UMHB defeating Linfield 49-24, and Whitewater rolling past Central behind 17-fourth quarter points for a 59-21 win. The Warhawks ran for 286 yards in the victory, 184 of which came from senior running back Alex Peete. Ninth in the nation in rushing yards (1,403), the Ringwood, Illinois native has been an insurmountable challenge for opposing defenses throughout the year. With his speed, and awareness, Peete has established himself at the core of Whitewater’s offense, after earning an All-West Region selection following the 2019 season.
“He’s a very motivated young man,” Bullis said of Peete. “His discipline, his process and training is fantastic.”
But Peete is not the only weapon leading the Warhawks’ offensive attack. Quarterback Max Meylor has been proficient in the passing game, ranking fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, (185.26), just two spots behind UMHB’s Kyle King (196.76).
“The thing that stands out to me with Max is his efficiency,” Bullis said. “He’s so efficient. You’re flabbergasted if he has an incompletion. That’s a credit to him, that O-Line and that wide receivers corps. He gets the ball on the spot.”
The two quarterbacks set to start in Saturday’s duel have each established themselves as efficient passers with incredible accuracy. King completed 75 percent of his pass attempts against Linfield, a number Bullis hopes his defense can lower.
“We better not give him much time,” Bullis said of King. “His ability to put the ball into a small window is beautiful. And that to me is something that is special. We cannot let him be comfortable on Saturday.
“The scary part to me is he throws well on the run. So even if you get him out of his spot, he still throws well off the run. We’re going to have to be better on our game than we have all season to try to put some pressure on him.”
If UMHB opts to throw the ball as much as it did in the quarterfinal round, which marked a season-high for pass attempts (33), there is little reason for the Warhawks faithful to worry about their defense’s counter. After facing a Central team that entered last week’s contest No. 1 in the country in passing offense, UWW was able to gain even more experience defending the pass.
“We were pretty confident Central was going to hang their hat on throwing the ball,” Bullis said. “They’d done that in their previous game against Wheaton. There’s no doubt that preparation is great for your defensive backs. Whether its zone coverage, or man coverage.
“The thing that is a little bit of apples and oranges is just some of the formations and route concepts will be different, because Mary Hardin-Baylor has their concepts that they want to be able to do. But there’s no doubt that it is helpful in the sense of general pass game preparation.”
Creating takeaways, whether it be interceptions, fumble recoveries, or special teams plays, is something Bullis has on the front of his mind as he prepares his Warhawks for Saturday. As he noted, in a game featuring teams as elite as these two programs are, one turnover has the potential to change the game.
“When you have two great teams playing each other, ball security is going to be vital,” Bullis noted. “When I say that, I mean our ability to secure the ball offensively and make sure we don’t turn the ball over [on offense] as well as on special teams. But also our ability to take the ball away. Because one takeaway, fumble, one interception could be the thing that flips this game.”
He added that for his defense, minimizing the impact of UMHB’s receiving corps will be critical. The Cru has a number of reliable receiving targets, including Brandon Jordan, KJ Miller, and Brenton Martin, all of whom tallied over 90 receiving yards against Linfield.
“Probably the second piece of that, which really ties into the turnovers, is just explosives,” Bullis added. “If somebody gets off a big 65-yard pass for a touchdown, that’s huge. The ability for us to minimize their explosiveness, which is tough because of the speed of their receivers and strength of their quarterback’s arm, but to be able to minimize long plays, is going to be big.”
As Bullis surveys the success of his program over this past year, fighting through no season in 2020 due to Covid after reaching the 2019 national title game, and now back in the hunt for a second consecutive trip to the Stagg Bowl, he cannot help but admire the dedication from his players. Even when there were no games to prepare for throughout both the fall and spring less than a year ago, the team was consistent and intentional in their practice.
“You put the perspective of what happened last year with the pandemic and not having a season, we didn’t play any games but the NCAA gave us 114 opportunities to train and work with our kids. We took advantage of 93 of them. I’m really pleased with the urgency of work those kids did last year. They did not take one workout for granted.”
And so it is…UMHB, Mount Union, UWW and North Central still standing in the first week of December. The storied history of these four programs still alive in the fight for a national title adds another layer to the excitement presented by these semifinal matchups.
“[There’s a] tradition of excellence of all those programs, and it’s really an honor to be mentioned with that group,” Bullis said. “I think we all look at it that way.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at email@example.com.