KEARNEY, Neb. — The No. 6 seed Warriors more and more are looking the part of a team with something to prove.
Against the fourth-ranked team in the nation, Nov. 26, the Warriors not only proved they belong in the post-season by beating Nebraska-Kearney 38-26, they proved they can win a national championship.
“We have nothing to lose,” senior running back Josh Renel said. “ We’ve been pretty much playing with reckless abandon, I guess is the way to put it. This team, now at this point especially after St. Cloud game, we really believe in ourselves. We really believe we can go all the way.”
Now a part of the tournament’s final “elite eight,” Wayne State immediately puts that theory to the test, again traveling to Minnesota Saturday to face the defending national champions, Minnesota-Duluth.
he game started ominous enough. With winds gusting upward of 60 mph, a flag atop a goal post ripped away from its mouring prior to the game. Wayne State played in a similar game against Ashland University in which it lost on a last-second filed goal.
But two-straight weeks of freakish weather couldn’t stop a loose and focused Warriors team. This week, they “were ready to play,” said head coach Paul Winters.
Out of the gate, Renel and WSU marched the opening kickoff down the field 75 yards. Renel capped the drive with a 1-yard dive in what might have been the most important drive of the game, according to Lopers coach Darrell Morris.
“It was unfortunate we weren’t able to capitalize having the wind in the first quarter,” he said explaining his decision to take the wind in the first quarter. “My goal was to try to jump up on them with the wind and make them punt the ball into the wind and play field position with them. But we just weren’t able to (slow) them down on defense on that first drive and get field position.”
Immediately following the score, Harlon Hill finalist and UNK quarterback Jake Spitzlberger threw an interception right to senior standout safety Jeremy Jones. He weaved in and out of Lopers taking his 15th career interception 47 yards for the touchdown. Contrary to Morris’ plans, the Warriors jumped to an early 14-0 lead. And it only got worse for Spitzlberger.
By the end of the half, he threw two more interceptions to the same person: Jones. Though Jones never scored again, his 144 yards total return yards set up two more Warriors touchdowns. And with D-lineman Greg Hasse forcing two fumbles (three overall), one inside the WSU 10, the Warriors went into halftime with a 31-0 lead.
It became clear what UNK’s Achilles heal would be: turnovers.
Mental mistakes and misfortune rued the Lopers’ day. It was the seventh game that UNK had at least three turnovers. The Warriors’ “Green Swarm” totaled six turnovers, a punt block and Wayne State recovering its own punt that touched a Loper. WSU had no turnovers.
“It just wasn’t our day,” Morris said. “We just spotted them way too many points. The wind was a factor … they did a better job it in that we did.”
At halftime, “We had to calm down a little bit, coming in there hooting and hollering, we just like “nope, stay calm we keep the train moving,” Jones said.
Wayne State hung on to win and survived a 19-point fourth quarter flury, which made the final score much closer than the game was played.
UNK made a push, however, scoring twice relatively quickly. And with the score 38-14 in the fourth, Renel took over. Six yards from paydirt, he waved off his sideline asking him to be substituted. The very next play he stormed across the goal line, essentially putting the final nail in the Loper coffin
Renel finished the game with 121 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns. Last week’s hero Toney Davis ran for 72 yards on 22 carries with one score.
“Obviously it starts with the offensive line,” said Winters when asked about Davis and Renel. “We don’t really worry about which one is running. I think they get opportunities and they take advantage of ‘em. It’s ideal -- one has a great game every other week so they can both be happy.”
Though both teams’ quarterbacks combined for 28-for-57 passing, It was WSU signal-caller Mickey Mohner who fared best as a game manager. He threw 8-for-17 passing for 122 yards and a first half score to Troy Burrell (4 catches, 73 yards).
Spitzlberger finished 19 for 40 with 230 yards, one late touchdown and three early interceptions. Many of his passes were dropped (two of the picks were on tips) or knocked down by the wind.
“They have to play in the same conditions, so it’s not an excuse,” he said.
For the first time a Wayne State football team will play a game in December.
“Again that Indianapolis game was huge,” said Winters when asked about his team’s biggest wins. “That was that one was the biggest test for us at the point in the season where we really had to win a game. These are just more fun.
“That was pressure, these are fun. We’re just having fun now.”
The Warriors’ next opponent, Minnesota Duluth, scored late against No. 1 Colorado State-Pueblo and won 24-21. Duluth also beat Saginaw Valley State in the first round last week.
Perhaps a good omen: One of Duluth’s loses came to Division II’s other “Wayne State,” the Wayne State College Wildcats. WSC resides in Northern Nebraska about 180 miles from Kearney.