CEDAR RAPIDS - The Cedar Rapids Titans and Sioux Falls Storm have met in the conference title game in each of the past four seasons.
If the Titans have any hope to make it five, they will need to dig out of an ever-increasing hole.
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Griffin Brennecke seized his chance.
Wartburg’s junior wide receiver bided on the sidelines and practice for his first two seasons. Then, when he hauled in his first reception in his first college start, all he did was take it 93 yards for a touchdown, etching his name in the Knights’ record book.
Brennecke has taken advantage of his new role, stepping into the starting lineup and becoming Wartburg’s second-leading receiver. The former Linn-Mar prep returns to the Metro when the Knights (2-1, 1-0 Iowa Conference) face Coe (4-0, 2-0) Saturday at Clark Field, starting at 1 p.m.
“It’s been a great opportunity this year,” said Brennecke, who has 219 yards on nine catches. “We’re young so we have a bunch of new guys in there. We’re young so it’s been good for me that I’ve been able to step in and do some things for the offense, thus far.”
Brennecke was buried in a depth chart that included four wideouts and a tight end who graduated after last year. Six seniors, including a tight end and running back, were among the top seven in receiving yards last season.
He had faith in the work he put in during past seasons and the offseason. Now, he has more catches in three games than he did as a freshman and sophomore combined.
“In my previous two seasons here, I’ve been lucky to have played behind some really good receivers here,” said Brennecke, who had two catches for 37 yards before this year. “I picked up some things from them. I knew my time would come. I just had to be patient and continue to work hard and not get discouraged.”
Wartburg Coach Rick Willis said some players are impatient and don’t handle the same situation well. Instead of complaining or maybe even giving up, Brennecke remained positive and continually improved.
“He’s grabbed the opportunity that he had and has been playing well to start the season,” Willis said. “He’s developing into a reliable playmaker for us.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s been ready to go and now he’s got a chance to show that.”
He made the most of it, actually. Brennecke spent time with quarterback Matt Sacia, who was also a reserve before becoming a starter this season. They worked together for more than the last year, developing a good rapport. It wasn’t a real surprise they connected on that 93-yard strike, topping the old school mark of 91 yards set by Taylor Jacobsmeier and Brandon Steggall in 2013.
On that play, Brennecke reeled in a pass about 20 yards from scrimmage and outran the defense.
“That first touchdown pass for Matt and I coming in that manner felt good,” Brennecke said. “It was really something special.”
Brennecke had 120 yards in that opening game against Monmouth (Ill.) and followed it with 99 yards on five catches in a victory over Nebraska Wesleyan. He ranks 18th nationally with a 24.33-yard average per catch.
The production wasn’t a surprise to Willis, noting Brennecke had the potential.
“He’s very athletic,” Willis said. “He’s got good speed. He’s able to go up and catch the ball, make plays on the ball in the air and he’s smart so he adapts well. I think he’s a pretty compete receiver at this point in time.”
When Wartburg traveled to Coe two years ago, Brennecke did not dress for the trip. Now, he will take the field in front of many friends and family there. He will even have the chance to play against a number of local players he knew from high school. Brennecke is excited to play in the Metro again.
“I’m treating it as another game,” Brennecke said. “Of course, I’d love to come back home and put together a good game. That is definitely something I’d like to do but it’s not really at the top of my list.”
Both teams have handled conference newcomer Nebraska Wesleyan. A victory would plant one team firmly in front of the other as an IIAC title contender. The Knights own a 23-11 edge in the series, winning the last two meetings.
“Coe is off to a great start,” Willis said. “They have a really good football team. I’m sure they have a lot of confidence.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to go down and see how much we’ve improved throughout the first few weeks. We expect it to be a heck of a football game.”
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