Wartburg seeks 1st trip to NCAA Division III football's final 4

Knights play quarterfinal Saturday at Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Wartburg head football coach Rick Willis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Wartburg head football coach Rick Willis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Rick Willis has accomplished a lot in almost two decades as football coach at Wartburg College.

He has won 80 percent of his games and nine Iowa Conference championships in 19 years. He was the fastest coach in IIAC history to reach the 100-win mark.

Wartburg has made 11 NCAA Division III playoff appearances under his guidance. The list of accomplishments go on and on.

But there is one thing that has eluded Willis and the Knights. A trip to the final four.

They get that chance Saturday when they play at third-ranked Wisconsin-Oshkosh at 12:05 p.m. Wartburg, ranked 11th by D3football.com, is 12-0, Oshkosh 11-0.

“It’d be a hurdle we haven’t been able to get over,” Willis said. “It’s a great opportunity for us on one hand, and, obviously, a tremendous challenge on the other. It would certainly be a great step for our program and for the Iowa Conference, and it’s something we’re excited to have a chance at.”

Oshkosh is in the quarterfinals for a third-straight year, champion of the always powerful Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Titans have rolled through their opponents by an average score of 42-12.

Offensively, they average 484 yards a game: 245 rushing, 239 passing. That’s called balance.

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Wartburg escaped a pass-heavy Franklin (Ind.) team in overtime in the first round and routed a rush-oriented Trine (Ind.) club last week in the second round, 49-7.

“We knew Franklin was going to pass a lot, we knew Trine was going to run a lot. But these guys are definitely more balanced,” said Wartburg linebacker Tony Anstoetter. “It’ll be the biggest challenge we’ve had so far this year, but we’ve kind of known that. They are the No. 3 team in the nation for a reason. We’re ready to get after them and make a statement.”

“They’re big and physical up front,” Willis said. “Their offensive line is kind of what makes them go and allows them to have that great balance. So we’re going to really have to play well. Limit big plays and try to contain their playmakers the best we can. Then, obviously, we’re going to have to match them some. We’re going to have to score ourselves.”

This is a juicy quarterbacking matchup between guys who have been named among 10 semifinalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, D-III’s version of the Heisman. Oshkosh’s Brett Kasper has thrown for 2,034 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, Wartburg’s Matt Sacia 2,552 yards and 28 touchdowns.

The junior from North Scott was recently named the Iowa Conference’s Most Valuable Offensive Player.

“Matt is fantastic, just something,” Anstoetter said. “It’s awesome watching him play.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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