Wittenberg opens season on road in Pennsylvania

Westminster College coached by former Wittenberg assistant

A drone buzzed over the Wittenberg football practice field on Monday, filming the Tigers hard at work five days before their season opener.

There were no drones — not the kind that can film a football practice, at least — when Joe Fincham debuted as head coach in 1996. The times have changed in many ways but in some ways not at all. The Tigers begin the season ranked 16th in the D3Football.com poll, and they are the preseason favorite in the North Coast Athletic Conference.

Wittenberg knows better than anyone how little all that means.

“Two years ago we got picked to win the conference, and we finished third,” said senior wide receiver and punt returner Jeff Tiffner, a Kenton Ridge graduate. “Last year we got picked to finish third, and we ended up winning it. We know where you come in doesn’t matter. I think a lot of that hunger has set in for us, knowing we got picked again so we have to defend it.”

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Wittenberg opens the season at 1 p.m. Saturday against Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., 235 miles from Springfield. This is the first game in a two-game series. Westminster will play at Edwards-Maurer Field in the 2018 season opener.

The series came about in part because of Fincham’s connection to fourth-year Westminster head coach Scott Benzel, who was the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Wittenberg in 2004.

“He had some interest in getting out of his opener,” Fincham said. “We didn’t have one. We weren’t really getting any bites. There you have it.”

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Westminster finished 9-2 in 2015, ending a streak of 12 straight non-winning seasons. It finished 8-3 in 2016.

The Titans return eight starters on offense and seven on defense. Senior quarterback Paul Columbo ranks third in school history in career passing (4,992 yards) and third in touchdowns (45). He threw 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions last season, averaging 147.3 yards per game.

“They have resources,” Fincham said. “When I first got here, they were still NAIA at that time, but they opened with Allegheny all the time. Allegheny was a bunch of killers at that time, and they were absolute wars. Scott’s done a really good job of recruiting. He’s built a really good staff. You turn on the film, and they look like Thomas More. They’re big and physical and really athletic in important spots. It’s going to be a hard football game for us to win.”

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The Tigers finished 10-2 last season. They return five starters on offense and six on defense. They won their last two season openers against Capital. This is the first season opener outside Ohio since they lost 49-24 at Butler in 2013.

“You never pick up where you left off from the year before,” Fincham said. “Every team’s different. They all have to develop leaders and playmakers. When you go into an opening ballgame like this, you go in with a lot of questions. Who are going to be our playmakers? Who are going to be our leaders? We have some guys, and we don’t know how they’re going to react when it gets really tight and really hard. You just don’t know.”

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