- David Jablonski Staff Writer
Five years ago, Wittenberg defensive lineman Lance Phillips proved prophetic after a 10-7 victory over Wabash. He described it as the “greatest victory I’ve ever had in football,” which was true for a number of Tigers that October day in Crawfordsville, Ind.
Phillips, a fifth-year senior playing on a torn ACL that season, also said the victory was “huge for the program.” That seemed true then, but was dependent on whether Wittenberg would use the moment as a springboard to future success — and has it ever.
No. 14 Wittenberg (7-1, 7-0) plays its biggest rival, No. 9 Wabash (8-0, 7-0), at 1 p.m. Saturday at Edwards-Maurer Field with the chance to win its third straight North Coast Athletic Conference championship. Either Wittenberg or Wabash has won or shared the title in each of the last nine seasons.
Without that 2009 victory, which paved the way to Wittenberg’s first outright crown since 2001, you could argue the Tigers might not have won outright championships in 2010 and 2013 and a co-championship in 2012.
“I feel like that helped us turn the corner in the rivalry,” said Wittenberg defensive backs coach Jamaal Everett, who saw some action against Wabash as a freshman in 2009. “Just winning at their place was really big, as was doing it again last year.”
Just as Wittenberg turned the tide in the series in 2009, Wabash had its big victory in the series in 2002: 46-43 in overtime against the Tigers in Springfield. From 2002 to 2008, the Little Giants won six of eight games in the series, four outright North Coast Athletic Conference championships and a share of another.
The Tigers traveled to Crawfordsville in 2009 desperate for a victory on a field where they hadn’t won in nine years.
A 31-yard field goal by Zack Harris with one second left gave the Tigers a 10-7 victory and led to the first of four conference championships in five years.
It remains the only time in the previous 17 seasons Wittenberg has won when scoring 10 points or less. South High School graduate Michael Cooper, now Wittenberg’s wide receivers coach, scored the only touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Aaron Huffman early in the fourth quarter.
Counting that 2009 game, the Tigers have won three of the last five against Wabash. Wittenberg leads the all-time series 9-8. That includes Wittenberg victories in 1964 and 1965.
The series has had everything over the years. Four games have been decided by made or missed last-second field goals.
• Mark Server hit a 27-yard field goal in overtime to win for Wabash in 2002.
• Wittenberg won 19-17 in 2006 in Springfield when Wabash’s Chad Finley missed a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
• Spencer Whitehead kicked a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to beat the Tigers 13-10 in Springfield in 2008.
Then there was that 2009 game, the last one to feature a dramatic finish. Wittenberg dominated in 2010 (34-17) and 2013 (35-17). Wabash won 28-17 in 2011. Two years ago, in the last game in Springfield, Wabash ran the last 9:32 off the clock with a 16-play drive to win 27-24.
“I think every rivalry has its ups and downs,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. “I don’t know how Saturday will turn out, but we’ve had some awfully good games with them over the years.”
With a victory Saturday, the Tigers would clinch a share of the NCAC title and the league’s automatic playoff berth with one game at Allegheny remaining.
The veterans of this series, like quarterbacks coach Ben Zoeller, who was 1-1 as a starter against Wabash in his career, tell the younger players to keep calm.
“It’s a big game and there’s a lot of pressure on them, but we tell them just go out there and play their game,” Zoeller said. “They can’t go out and be too nervous. That’s when you make a lot of mistakes.”