Three years ago, the last time the Wittenberg football team practiced this late in November, then assistant coach Mark Ewald brought two live turkeys to Edwards-Maurer Field on Thanksgiving morning, and they ran around the field for a short time before the players and coaches rounded them up.
“I guarantee we had 30 city kids who had never been within 20 yards of a live turkey,” head coach Joe Fincham joked.
It’s unknown whether Fincham pardoned the turkeys — or Ewald, now an assistant at Dayton. But whether you’re chasing turkeys, or adjusting holiday schedules on the fly, there’s nothing bad about playing football during the holidays.
The 13th-ranked Tigers (10-1) ensured a hectic Thanksgiving week by rallying from a 31-13 halftime deficit to beat Heidelberg 52-38 on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs in Tiffin. Now they prepare to bus 473 miles to Geneva, N.Y., to play the Statesmen of No. 7 Hobart College (11-0) at noon Saturday.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Fincham said Sunday. “Once you get in the playoffs, there’s something special about practicing Thursday morning. We’ve gone out on years where it was so cold there was frost on the turf, and it was like concrete.”
This is Wittenberg’s first second-round game since 2009, when it advanced to the third round, also known as the national quarterfinals, before losing at mighty Wisconsin-Whitewater. Saturday’s win was the program’s first playoff road win since it beat Hanover 34-33 in the first round. It had lost four straight playoff road games since then (Wabash, 2002; Capital, 2006; Whitewater, 2009; and Ohio Northern, 2010).
Saturday’s win was sealed by safety Heath Eby’s 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute.
“It was awesome,” Eby said, “especially because I missed two opportunities on the drive. It was good to get a little redemption.”
After giving up five scores in the first half, the defense gave up only one touchdown in the second half — and that was after Wittenberg had rolled off 32 straight points to take a 45-31 lead in the fourth. Eby said the defense made a few adjustments, but for the most part just played with a different attitude.
“We didn’t lose focus,” Eby said. “Laying down was not an option. We all knew we were coming back, and we were going to try to make something special happen.”
Fincham said he got a number of text messages after the game congratulating him on what people thought must have been a fiery postgame speech.
“The fire and brimstone of halftime was really coming from guys like (senior defensive lineman) Jon Daniels,” Fincham said. “They were the ones who handled that.”
Overshadowed by the offensive explosion, led by quarterback Reed Florence’s five touchdown passes, was the play of kicker Sean Williams. He hit two field goals in the first half and another in the third to start the winning rally. The senior has made 11-of-13 field goals this season and is one short of tying his own single-season school record mark of 12, which he has set in each of the last two seasons.
“It’s great to have someone like Sean,” Eby said. “It’s like a safety blanket. Just in case the drive stalls, you’re not going to come up empty-handed.”