Story and photo courtesy of Wittenberg Athletics
TIFFIN, Ohio – The Wittenberg Tigers put together the largest comeback in its illustrious NCAA Division III Tournament history, rallying from a 22-point first-half deficit to stun Heidelberg 52-38 in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
Much like other memorable rallies – including a 1988 win at Dayton, a 2001 win at Hardin-Simmons and a 2002 victory at Hanover – the Tigers did the job on the road. Wittenberg (10-1) advanced to a second round game against Hobart, and the Tigers also removed a monkey from the program's collective back with its first postseason win over an Ohio Athletic Conference foe in eight tries, dating back to 1978.
"We've had some great comeback wins in the playoffs, and this one will definitely rank right up there with the best of them," said Wittenberg Head Coach Joe Fincham. "We kept telling our guys that this was going to be a 15-round fight and they had to keep their composure. We just felt that if we could keep running plays, we would find our stride."
Heidelberg, which was making its first appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament since its inception in 1973, sprinted out to a 21-3 lead less than 12 minutes into the game and held a 31-13 advantage after a field goal on the final play of the first half. However, Wittenberg gained some momentum on the final series after junior linebacker Evan Killilea (Columbus, Ohio/DeSales) made the Tigers' first tackle for loss on third down.
What may have seemed like a relatively insignificant play at the time gave Wittenberg some unexpected momentum. To that point, Wittenberg's defense had given up big play after big play. No one knew at the time, but the pendulum had swung, setting the stage for a second half dominated by the Tigers, who are now 49-12 all-time against Heidelberg.
"They pushed us around early in the ball game," Fincham said. "It's a credit to (defensive coordinator) Andy Waddle and the coaches on that side of the ball. They kept encouraging the guys and kept making adjustments, and we got a lot of key stops. The next thing you know, Jed's a millionaire, right?"
Wittenberg had some success offensively over the opening 30 minutes as well, starting with a pair of field goals by senior Sean Williams (Plainfield, Ind./Plainfield). Trailing 28-6, Fincham elected not to kick another field goal and his team responded, converting on fourth down en route to the first of junior quarterback Reed Florence's (South Charleston, Ohio/Southeastern) five touchdown passes.
The Tiger offense exploded in the second half, scoring 32 unanswered points. Williams, who tied a school record for points by kicking in a game with 14 and broke the school record for career field goals during the game, started the avalanche with a third-quarter field goal. Florence followed by tossing two touchdown passes to junior wide receiver Brendon Cunningham (Kettering, Ohio/Fairmont), who had three in the game to go along with a two-point conversion, and one each to juniors Jonathan Stoner (Bowling Green, Ohio/Bowling Green) and Desi Kirkman (Lima, Ohio/Catholic Central). Forence and Kirkman also connected on a third-and-33 to keep a scoring drive alive on the first play of the fourth quarter with the Tigers trailing 31-23.
Wittenberg's defense held Heidelberg to 138 yards and one touchdown in the second half, in addition to forcing four turnovers, capped by an interception that junior safety Heath Eby (Medina, Ohio/Cloverleaf) returned for a score inside the final minute.
Florence finished with 31 completions in 49 attempts for 346 yards, the second-highest total in Wittenberg playoff history. Kirkman led the receiving corps with a career-best 10 catches for 104 yards, while Cunningham added eight receptions for 94 yards and Stoner finished with five for 69 yards.
Florence was also the Tigers' leading rusher with 66 yards on 11 carries. He was sacked once in the game, but his ability to scramble set up several of Wittenberg's biggest plays. Freshman tailback Jimmy Dehnke (Canton, Ohio/Massillon Jackson) picked up 59 hard-earned yards on 22 carries before giving way to junior JaVanh Sanders (Las Vegas, Nev./Centennial), who combined four carries and two catches in the fourth quarter to gain 41 key yards.
Defensively, junior linebacker Spencer Leno (Massillon, Ohio/Massillon) topped both teams with 12 tackles, in addition to a forced fumble. Senior cornerback Jamaal Everett (Kettering, Ohio/Fairmont) added 10 tackles, all credited as solo stops, to go along with a forced fumble.
Heidelberg saw its season end with a mark of 9-2. The Student Princes were an at-large entry into the competition after finishing second in the Ohio Athletic Conference, behind only No. 1-ranked Mount Union.