Pioneers lose battle of unbeatens

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In what was the biggest game in recent history of Pioneer football, key mistakes cost the Pioneers their chance at a win over University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in a matchup of two undefeated teams Nov. 2.

 

University of Wisconsin-Platteville (7-1, 4-1 WIAC), one of the best offenses in NCAA Division III, threw five interceptions against one of the best defenses in D-III, leading to a 35-16 Warhawk (8-0, 5-0 WIAC) win.

 

The Pioneer defense started the game by forcing back-to-back turnovers on UW-Whitewater’s first two drives, the second of which was an interception returned for a 70-yard touchdown by sophomore defensive back Jason Flagg.

 

The ensuing extra point was blocked, giving the Pioneers a 6-0 lead.

 

After the Pioneer defense forced a Warhawk punt, the Pioneers moved down the field, and senior kicker Zach Litchfield booted a field goal from 47 yards out, which set a new career high for Litchfield and gave the Pioneers a 9-0 lead.

 

From then on, it was all UW-Whitewater.

 

The Warhawks moved down the field, speeding up the tempo of their offense with the use of the no-huddle and eventually scored on an 11-yard pass from quarterback Matt Behrendt to Joe Worth.

 

After the teams traded punts, the Warhawks took a 14-9 lead on the strength of an 11-play drive, then added to that lead after forcing a Pioneer punt.

 

Down 22-9 late in the first half, Pioneer senior quarterback John Kelly moved the Pioneers down the field quickly and threatened to trim the margin to give UW-Platteville momentum going into halftime.

 

However, when the Pioneers got into the red zone, Kelly was under pressure and tried to lob a pass to junior running back Andy Puccini, but it was picked off.

 

Kelly and the Pioneers looked to have their mojo back when the second half began, moving the ball effectively and scoring on a 13-yard pass from Kelly to sophomore receiver Russell Martin, pulling within one score at 22-16.

 

UW-Platteville’s defense made a stop, giving the Pioneers a chance to take the lead in the third quarter, but Kelly threw his third interception and the Warhawks took control at the Pioneers’ 18-yard line, where the Pioneer defense held UW-Whitewater to a field goal.

 

The teams’ defenses tightened up and forced punts on the next four drives.

 

The Pioneers got the ball down by nine with 10:35 left in the fourth quarter when Kelly forced a ball downfield to junior receiver Trevor Whitehead, resulting in another interception.

 

The Warhawks returned that pick to the Pioneer six-yard line and punched in a touchdown on the next play.

 

The absence of senior running back Lee Vlasak, who was lost for the year with a shoulder injury last week, really hurt the Pioneers, as the team only amassed 15 net yards rushing.

 

The win gives the Warhawks sole possession of first place in the WIAC, and the loss puts the Pioneers in a tie for second place with University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

 

It is a widely-held belief that if UW-Platteville or UW-Oshkosh finishes the season 9-1 with their only loss being to UW-Whitewater, that team will receive an at-large bid into the D-III playoff.

 

The Pioneers and Titans square off in the last regular-season game on Nov. 16, but for the game to hold a bid to the playoffs on the line, the Pioneers will have to defeat University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (3-5, 3-2 WIAC) on Saturday.

 

UW-Platteville’s game with UW-La Crosse will be Senior Day, honoring the 18 seniors on the roster. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.