Coach Joe Fincham had a typical Sunday planned for the Wittenberg Tigers: weightlifting, film sessions, meetings, etc. It’s the same routine every week.
There was nothing typical about Saturday for Fincham and the Tigers, however — other than the fact that they won.
No. 13 Wittenberg beat Wabash 21-14 to improve to 8-0 and maintain its grip on first place in the North Coast Athletic Conference at 7-0. Two home games remain against Ohio Wesleyan and Wooster.
This was Wittenberg’s 10th game in Crawfordsville, Ind., since 2000. They beat the Little Giants on the road for the fourth time. In none of the previous victories (2000, 2009 and 2013) had they trailed in the fourth quarter.
“You go on the road and play in a tough environment,” said Fincham, who will seek his 200th career victory on Saturday against Ohio Wesleyan at Edwards-Maurer Field. “I can’t say enough about the toughness and composure of our team. In all big games, there are swings back and forth in momentum, whether they are self inflicted or just produced by the other team. We were able to fight through some bad things. We had some poor field position. We gave up a fake punt that really changed the complexion of the game. Our kickoff return team hurt us on a couple of different occasions. We had a couple bad turnovers, too. The guys stuck together. I don’t think they ever wavered in their belief.”
Wabash took a 14-13 lead on a 3-yard run by Ike James with 4:18 to play in the third quarter. Wittenberg punted on its next two drives.
With 10:22 left in the fourth quarter, Wittenberg started a drive on its own 26-yard line. DeShawn Sarley started the possession with two runs for 16 yards. Jake Kennedy then threw a 17-yard pass to Jeff Tiffner to move the ball across midfield.
On 3rd-and-7 from the Wabash 38, Tiffner caught a 14-yard pass. On the next play, Kennedy found Bryce Bailey in the back of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion pass to Tiffner gave Wittenberg a 21-14 lead at the 6:54 mark.
Bailey’s touchdown was his third of the season. He leads the team with 29 catches while also handling punting duties. He ranks second in the North Coast Athletic Conference with 38.8 yards per punt.
“We had a lot of questions going into the season,” Fincham said. “You lose three all-conference offensive linemen. We had some questions in our secondary. But I’m not so sure the biggest question was, ‘Who was going to replace (punter) Will Gingery?’ Bryce Bailey has really come through for us.”
Kennedy’s 20th touchdown of the season allowed him to improve to 2-0 as a starter against Wabash. No Wittenberg quarterback can claim that mark since the Little Giants joined the league in 2000.
“Jake is real competitive,” Fincham said. “I think that he typically plays his best in the biggest games. He gets a little wild at times, but that’s his personality as a player. He provides a lot of leadership. I think our team believes in Jake. He’s proven himself to be a pretty good player in those moments.”
Wittenberg’s defense did its part as well. James, who averages a NCAC-best 134 yards per game, gained 41 yards on 21 carries. Isaac Avant, who ranks eighth in the league with 64.1 yards per game, had 29 yards on 11 carries.
“Those are clearly — and there is no close second — the best two backs we’ve seen all year,” Fincham said. “And with the sheer size of that offensive line and playing in that environment, I can’t say enough about front four guys and our safeties, too. It was a team effort to be able to shut that thing down. Our front guys got after the quarterback, and we tackled well pretty much the whole ballgame.”