Matt Behrendt and his Wisconsin-Whitewater teammates spent last year's NCAA Division III playoffs on the sideline, three-time national championship left out of the playoffs, and a chance to win their fourth title in a row,
They started what they hope is a new streak Friday night with a 52-14 victory over Mount Union.
"Talking for the seniors, it was the best thing that happened to our program," defensive end Loussaint Minett said of being excluded from the postseason in 2012. It gave the Warhawks inspiration to make sure it didn't happen again.
Behrendt made sure of it, throwing four touchdown passes while the Warhawks' defense stymied Gagliardi Trophy-winner Kevin Burke and the Purple Raiders, putting the game away with four second-half turnovers.
Behrendt finished 20 for 28 for 249 yards. He also ran six times for 56 yards, often in key situations. It was a tactic he hadn't used much this season, but in a game with the stakes as high as they get, he said he took whatever was available.
`They were trying to double cover our receivers all day, and that opened up lanes for me," he said.
He also seemed to make every throw, a performance highlighted by a scrambling, sidearm laser to Jake Kumerow in the front right corner of the end zone, a play where there was only one spot to throw the ball, and Behrendt got it there.
"When he's on a roll like that, you know it's going to be coming in hot," Kumerow said with a huge smile.
Kumerow and Tyler Huber each caught a pair of scoring passes, and Jordan Ratliffe ran for two for the Warhawks (15-0), who continued their domination of the series between the two powerhouse programs in Division III.
Whitewater, also the champions in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011, have won four straight and five of its last six meetings with Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl. The Purple Raiders have won 11 titles, beating Whitewater in 2005, 2006 and 2008,
The teams have met eight times in the last nine years in the division's championship game.
The Purple Raiders (14-1), national champions last season, suffered their worst loss since falling 48-0 to Wittenberg in 1974. That game took place before their first-year head coach, Vince Kehres, was born.
"The turnovers were tough, but we weren't stopping them very good either," Kehres said.
The Warhawks led 21-14 at halftime behind Behrendt's three TD passes, and took command in the third quarter, turning a fumble recovery into a touchdown and a defensive stand at their 5 into a field goal that made it 31-14.
Another fumble recovery late in the third period set up Behrendt's final scoring throw. The junior quarterback, voted the most outstanding player, finished with 40 touchdown passes and just one interception this season.
"And the best thing about it?" coach Lance Leipold said. "He's a junior."
Mount Union quarterback Burke, who won the Gagliardi Trophy on Thursday night as the top player in Division III, was turned away when he tried to make something happen fast for the Purple Raiders after they went behind 38-14.
Burke threw deep on the ensuing series, and Warhawks cornerback Dylan Morang made a dazzling over-the-shoulder interception near the goal line and returned it to the Whitewater 30. Four plays later, Ratliffe's run made it 45-14.
"They did a good job of taking away what we wanted to do," Burke said. Asked what that was, he replied: "win."
Burke threw another interception on the next series, and Brady Grayvold returned it 37 yards for a touchdown, making it 52-14 with 8:23 remaining and letting the crowd of 5,371 know the outcome was decided.
"It's huge for our program," Minett said. "It's huge to go out on top as seniors."
The game marked the ninth consecutive appearance in the championship game for Mount Union, and its first under the 37-year-old Kehres, who succeeded his father, Larry, as coach after last season. The older Kehres compiled a 332-24-3 record in 27 seasons with the Purple Raiders and won 11 national titles.
The Warhawks dominated most of the first half, but a critical early mistake and a late scoring drive kept the Purple Raiders close. The mistake came when a shotgun snap sailed over Berhendt's head and Alex Kocheff recovered for Mount Union at the Whitewater 5. Burke ran it in on the next play to make it 7-7.
Behrendt otherwise continued a nearly flawless season, throwing touchdown passes of 17 yards to Kumerow, the 18th time they have teamed up this season, and 23 and 7 yards to Huber.
The latter came with 4:09 left on the clock, and Burke was 4 for 4 for 59 yards on the ensuing drive for the Purple Raiders, including a 15-yard strike to Brian Gainer on fourth-and-15 from the Warhawks 26. Mitchell, limited to 6 yards on his first four carries, took it the final 11 on the next play.