Jim Amidon — Now that Black Friday and the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy have passed, the turkey and noodles and turkey potpie are gone, what’s next before the holidays? Thinking about a trip to Indy to see the world’s largest Christmas tree? What about a movie or an afternoon at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to check out the Roman exhibition?
I know what I’m doing this weekend.
I’m jumping in the car early Saturday morning, heading west, then turning north to watch the Wabash College football team square off against the Warhawks of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Mapquest tells me the trip is 305 miles and it says it’ll take me four hours and 56 minutes, door to door.
It’ll be worth the drive, even if it was twice as far. After all, Wabash will be playing football in December and that’s a very cool thing.
The Little Giants, by virtue of Saturday’s 38-25 win at Case Western last Saturday, have advanced to the Elite Eight of NCAA Division III football. To advance to the semifinals, Wabash will have to get past the Warhawks, who have lost to Mount Union in the last two national championship games.
Talk about a David and Goliath match-up.
Aside from championship football teams, there’s really not much the two schools have in common.
UW-Whitewater is a massive, state-supported university within the Wisconsin state university system. Founded in 1868, Whitewater has about 12 times as many students as tiny Wabash — 10,700. In fact, Whitewater enrolls about the same number of students each year as Wabash has total living alumni.
Wabash’s campus is nestled on under 60 total acres in Crawfordsville. The Whitewater campus is a sprawling 404 acres. Annual tuition at Whitewater is under $6,000. At Wabash, tuition is about $26,000 per year.
We’re talking apples and oranges.
But like most of the Wisconsin state universities, Whitewater plays NCAA Division III, non-scholarship football.
The second ranked Warhawks bang heads every week against large, state schools like themselves, so a look at the statistics sheet, while gaudy, doesn’t give you an accurate picture of just how good the 11-1 Warhawks are. Not since Wabash played Mount Union in the National Quarterfinals in 2002 has it played such a tough opponent. The Warhawks have beaten four top-20 teams this year alone.
Thanks to Gagliardi Finalist Justin Beaver, the Warhawks average more than 235 yards rushing per game with 25 rushing touchdowns. Beaver is the real deal in the backfield. He’s rushed for 1,881 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 171 yards per game, making him the most talented offensive player the Little Giants have faced all year.
Defenses really struggle to slow him down, but Wabash — with Gagliardi Finalist Adi Pynenberg (pictured left) leading the way — has steadily improved through the playoffs and held Case Western to minus-29 yards last week.
Whitewater’s size on the offensive and defensive lines could cause Wabash problems. The Little Giants dominated both sides of the line in Saturday’s win over Case Western, but they’ll face a huge challenge this week.
This whole season has been filled with challenges for Wabash, so I don’t expect the Little Giants will see themselves as the big underdogs most folks think they are. From a bevy of pre-season injuries to the loss of All-American quarterback Dustin Huff in the first game, Wabash has proven it can regroup and rise up behind its talented senior leaders.
The seniors stepped up last week at Case. Senior receivers Bart Banach, Mike Russell, Gabe Guerrero, and Ray Green combined for 18 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Lineman Brian Hilts (pictured right) kept quarterback Matt Hudson safe and helped Wabash rush for 156 yards.
On the other side, Pynenberg, who now holds almost every single season and career defensive record at Wabash, has been rock solid as a leader and big-play performer. He and his fellow senior defensive starters will need to keep Wabash focused on the game at hand, not on Whitewater’s impressive size and statistics.
It’s fun to have Coach Creighton’s Little Giants playing among the most elite college football programs in the country. The pundits will say Wabash doesn’t have a chance — too small, too slow, didn’t play good enough competition along the way.
That’s okay with me.
I know the Little Giants will take a “Wabash Always Fights” attitude on the road to Whitewater, Wisconsin this Saturday. I’ll be part of the caravan cheering them on and reminding them what a special group of young men they are and how proud all of us are of them.