It is rare when college sports fans can say they went to the biggest game in the country that particular regular-season day.
But if you watched, in person or online, or listened to Saturday’s football game between UW–Platteville and North Central College, you saw one of only two games in all of Division III between Top 25 teams. (The other, between Hobart and Ithaca in New York, featured lower-ranked Top 25 teams.)
No one who went on the spectacular early-fall Saturday can say they weren’t entertained by the game, even the North Central fans on the east side of Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium. Things went well for the Cardinals for three quarters, but after the Pioneers’ fourth quarter comeback, overtime touchdown and overtime defensive stand, to quote a former TV partner of mine, they were “STUNNED on the other side!” at the Pioneers’ 35–28 overtime win.
To quote radio friends of mine, the Dreaded Third Score — the score from which high school teams at least do not come back — came on the second play of the fourth quarter, when North Central’s second string running back, Austin Breunig, emulated starter Oshayne Brown, who had a 62-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, but had left with an injury. Breunig’s 46-yard touchdown run extended North Central’s lead to 28–7.
Platteville had not played horribly before that point, but two drives ended in interceptions, one made worse by a personal foul that set up North Central for a 13-yard scoring drive, the other of which was in the red zone and started North Central’s fourth scoring drive. The last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half resulted in no scores and no change in momentum. With 56 seconds gone in the fourth quarter, time wasn’t the issue; lack of previous productive offense was.
But then Old Mo switched sidelines. A fourth-down incomplete pass was wiped away by a roughing the passer penalty, leading four plays later to touchdown number two, cutting the lead to 28–14. Despite a 13-yard pass for a first-down and then a pass interference penalty, the Pioneer defense got a fourth-down stop. Touchdown number three required three third-down conversions (including the unusual third-and-31 illegal block penalty and dead-ball personal foul, which kept the ball where it was but gave Platteville a first down) and a fourth-down touchdown pass to trim the deficit to 28–21.
North Central’s next drive was a first-down-and-out, and as the Cardinals lined up to punt spectators saw the clock, under three minutes, and two Platteville time outs remaining. Neither time out got used for the game-tying scoring drive, because there was no game-tying scoring drive, only Dillon Villhauer’s 75-yard punt return down the Platteville sideline to tie the game. (Which apparently occurred because the first Cardinal defender who got to Villhauer missed tackling him and came up limping.)
Three more unsuccessful drives later, off we went to free football. One first down came on a third-and-11 13-yard pass. Another first down came on a pass interference penalty. And then on third and goal from the 1, quarterback Tom Kelly, who had taken every snap in the shotgun position back from center, walked up behind the line as if changing a play, and then took the snap and pushed his way in.
The defense gave up four touchdowns in three quarters and 49 seconds, but no fourth-quarter comeback takes place unless the defense got stops thereafter, and the defense did in the fourth quarter and overtime, the latter of which consisted of one two-yard run and three incomplete passes, the last of which was thrown to the wrong-color jersey.
The win is an important intangible at minimum for Platteville, which is now ranked 17th in the D3Football.com poll and 13th in the American Football Coaches Association D3 poll. One year ago UW–Oshkosh beat Platteville in triple overtime to finish second in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Conference. One year ago North Central finished second to Wheaton in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. And neither went to the playoffs arguably because of too many nonconference losses (three by Oshkosh) and one bad nonconference loss (North Central to Stevens Point, which Platteville beat handily). It’s certainly better to go into number-one-ranked Whitewater off that win than off a dispiriting loss. And for at least a few years, coach Mike Emendorfer can look at his team if down in a game and remind them of North Central in 2015.
If you have not been to a Pioneer game, you are missing out. Not every game is like that, but obviously the style of football Platteville plays, besides being immensely entertaining, means that few deficits are beyond recovery. And you get to see the finest Division III marching band in the country at UW–Platteville. (And as you know, my marching band standards are high.)
To paraphrase someone who is always quoted saying this: Saturday was a great day to be a Pioneer. Or Pioneer fan.