OSHKOSH, Wis. — A fourth trip to the Elite Eight once again ended in disappointment for the Wartburg football team.
Dylan Hecker gained 177 yards from scrimmage and found the end zone five times, leading No. 3 Wisconsin-Oshkosh to a 41-27 win over the 15th-ranked Knights in the Division III playoff quarterfinals Saturday.
The underdog Knights kept themselves in position to pull off the upset well into the second half. And following a 26-yard Jordan Johnson field goal, they had pulled even with the unbeaten Titans at 20.
But Hecker quickly dashed Wartburg’s hopes of advancing, scoring one-yard touchdowns on the ensuing two possessions, with both scores coming after big pass plays.
Sam Mentkowski set up the first touchdown by hauling in a beautifully thrown 41-yard pass from Brett Kasper to reach the Knights’ 1-yard line .
After a Wartburg punt, Hecker then set himself up with a 59-yard catch-and-run out of the backfield off a busted coverage. Hecker eventually iced the game away with a nine-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter.
While Hecker’s scoring prowess was the story of the day, a string of big plays through the air proved just as detrimental to the Wartburg defense.
After scoring from a yard out with 3:22 to play in the first quarter, Hecker found the end zone again just 2:37 later. On a play eerily similar to his 59-yard catch in the third quarter, Hecker leaked out of the backfield completely uncovered for a 43-yard touchdown catch.
Then, following a Wartburg field goal, Mentkowski, who recorded 120 receiving yards, broke free for an easy 29-yard touchdown reception against a Wartburg defensive back who’d fallen down.
“We had a few breakdowns, gave up big plays,” Wartburg coach Rick Willis said. “We knew that was one of the things we weren’t going to be able to do in a game like this.
“They put you in some dilemmas. They have such good balance. You have to do such a good job trying to defend both the run and the pass that sometimes guys get their eyes in the wrong spot and maybe make a mistake.”
Wartburg was also out-executed in the run game, surrendering 247 yards while gaining just 73.
The Knights kept things close largely due to the play of quarterback Matt Sacia, who consistently made plays while fending off a steady Titan pass rush.
The Iowa Conference Offensive Player of the Year finished 25 of 36 for 263 yards and a touchdown. He also accounted for the game’s first score on a two-yard touchdown run off a perfectly executed read-option in the first quarter.
Riley Brockway and Griffin Brennecke each had 82 receiving yards, with Brockway grabbing a five-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on what proved to be his final collegiate play.
Sacia, a junior, will lead a strong group of returners for a Knights team that tied the school record with 12 wins this season.
After missing the playoffs in each of the last two years, one departing senior was happy to go out on a team that fulfilled its postseason potential.
“This is where we should be,” Brockway said. “I felt like we had a good team, felt like we could make a deep run in the playoffs. Just getting back here just felt like this is where we should be. I’m proud of that.”
And while he expects he will look back at the season fondly in time, one of Brockway’s classmates admitted to feeling unfulfilled, as the Knights were once again unable to punch their first ticket to the Final Four.
“It’s hard to think about the good things right now,” said senior linebacker Tony Anstoetter. “We expected to win this game. I’m sure in a couple days we’ll be able to look at this and be a little bit happy about it. But right now, it just kind of hurts.”
UW-Oshkosh 41, Wartburg 27
Wartburg 7 10 3 7 — 27
Wis.-Oshkosh 13 7 14 7— 41
Wart — Matt Sacia 2 run (Jordan Johnson kick)
WO — Dylan Hecker 1 run (Turner Geisthardt kick)
WO — Hecker 43 pass from Brett Kasper (kick failed)
Wart — Johnson 25 field goal
WO — Sam Mentkowski 29 pass from Kasper (Geisthardt kick)
Wart — Matt Mulford 5 pass from Sacia (Johnson kick)
Wart — Johnson 26 field goal
WO — Hecker 1 run (Geisthardt kick)
WO — Hecker 1 run (Geisthardt kick)
WO — Hecker 9 run (Geisthardt kick)
Wart — Riley Brockway 5 pass from Sacia (Johnson kick)
First downs 22 24
Rushes-yards 35-73 39-247
Passing yards 263 256
Comp-att-int 25-36-0 16-25-0
Return yards 128-81
Punts-avg. 3-34.3 1-31
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 6-45 4-48
WARTBURG — Dylan Binion 17-77, Connor Schrader 5-8, Matt Sacia 13-minus-12.
WIS.-OSHKOSH — Mitch Gerhartz 16-128, Dylan Hecker 15-71, Dom Todarello 3-33, Turner Geisthardt 1-9.
WARTBURG — Sacia 25-36-0, 263 yards.
WIS.-OSHKOSH — Brett Kasper 16-25-0, 256 yards.
WARTBURG — Riley Brockway 8-82, Griffin Brennecke 6-82, Denison Harrington 5-52, Lee Bonifas 2-14, Ben Strathman 1-11, Nick Wall 1-9, Dylan Binion 1-8, Matt Mulford 1-5.
WIS.-OSHKOSH — Sam Mentkowski 8-120, Hecker 3-106, Chad Redmer 2-18, Beau Ash 1-7, Jacob Grant 1-4, Cody Moon 1-1.