One the loudest Wittenberg Tigers, wide receiver Jeff Tiffner, motivated his teammates with a few words before practice on a gray, chilly Wednesday afternoon.
“Wabash week!” Tiffner shouted. “Best week of the year!”
The No. 13 Tigers (7-0, 6-0) return to the Hoosier State for the second straight week, facing Wabash (6-1, 5-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Crawfordsville, Ind. This is the best week for Wittenberg because it’s often the best game.
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Eight of the 18 games since 2000 have been decided by seven points or fewer. Either Wabash or Wittenberg has won or shared the NCAC title in the last 12 seasons, and only one time in those years did another team earn a share of the championship (Ohio Wesleyan tied with Wittenberg in 2012).
“It’s out biggest game of the year,” Tiffner said. “It’s our Ohio State-Michigan game. It’s our biggest rival. We definitely love it.”
Wittenberg suffered its most lopsided loss to Wabash in its last trip to Crawfordsville, losing 42-14 in 2015. That was one point worse than a 41-14 loss in 2003.
The Tigers rebounded with a 24-14 victory over Wabash last season in Springfield, ralling from a 14-0 deficit. A victory Saturday would give the Tigers four wins in the last five games in the series. That would be its most dominant five-year stretch in the series.
While Wittenberg has won all six of its NCAC games by at least 16 points and leads the conference in scoring margin (plus-12), Wabash struggled to beat Hiram 25-21, edged Wooster 33-28 and lost 16-13 to Ohio Wesleyan. Last week, the Little Giants beat Oberlin 35-21, clinching the victory with a touchdown run with Isaac Avant with 2:06 to go.
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While Wabash may not be as dominant as in recent years, Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham is wary, especially of Wabash’s new running back. Ike James, a transfer from St. Joseph’s College (Ind.), leads the NCAC with 147.3 yards per game and has 12 touchdowns.
“My god he looks like Larry Csonka back there,” Fincham said. “I think they’re more athletic at receiver this year than they’ve been in recent years. Defensively, they’re outstanding. Their team speed defensively is as good as any you’ll see in the country. They’ve got a couple of big, old dudes up front. They’re a good football team.”
Wabash’s first-year starter at quarterback is sophomore Weston Murphy, who has five touchdowns and five interceptions. He averages 119.1 yards per game.
Wittenberg counters with an offense led by quarterback Jake Kennedy, who has 18 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He threw four touchdowns last week in a 52-6 victory over previously unbeaten DePauw (6-1, 5-1). Wittenberg also scored on an interception return, a fumble return and a punt return in that game.
“As coach Fincham says, you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low,” Wittenberg running back DeShawn Sarley said. “We obviously played well on all three sides of the ball, but it’s a new week and a new game.”