There are no such thing as moral victories if you ask the majority of football coaches, but there are certainly positives that can be taken out of losses.
That’s certainly how Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said he felt about his team’s 17-3 loss on Saturday vs. perennial power and No. 4-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater as the Vikings competed well against one of the top teams in the country with his defense keeping them in the game and the offense coming up a a couple finished scoring drives away from being right in it at the end.
“We got exactly what we were looking for out of this game because our guys competed with the best, and now our focus is on taking this experience forward when our conference season starts in two weeks,” said Kunczewski. “This game will no doubt help prepare us for our conference, which keeps getting better and better. We want to play teams like this because we need to be battle-tested. When you play a team like (Wisconsin-Whitewater) who is a top-5 team consistently and have won numerous conference and national championships, it only can help make you better as a team.”
The Vikings (2-1) saw its defense come up with several huge stops and multiple turnovers in the contest, including an interception by Nick Willis late in the first half. The Berry offense then drove down the field and gave kicker Matthew Syverson a chance to put points on the board as time expired in the second quarter, and the senior delivered with a school-record 52-yard field goal to make it 14-3 as the teams headed to the locker room.
Berry took that momentum over into the second half and on the first drive after receiving the opening kickoff of the third quarter, drove down the field deep into Wisconsin-Whitewater territory. However, on a fourth-down pass, Vikings’ quarterback Gavin Gray was picked off the Warhawks’ Kyle Koelblinger.
Later in the quarter, Wisconsin-Whitewater (2-1) drove to the Berry side of the field and added a 44-yard field goal from Jeffery Isotalo-McGguire to make it 17-3 with 3:59 remaining in the third quarter.
Those three points ended up being the final of the game as both defenses held the opposition off the scoreboard. Berry had two good chances to cut into the lead late in the fourth as the offense drove it to the Warhawks’ 4 on one possession but were stopped on fourth down and then drove it to the Warhawks’ 18 on its next possession before once again being stopped on fourth down.
“We just couldn’t finish drives when we needed to,” said Kunczewski. “We knew their strength on defense was their defensive line. They rolled two different groups in, and they were both big and strong. I feel like we did a good job holding up against them, we just couldn’t punch it in. That’s obviously an area we need to do better.”
The Warhawks scored their two touchdowns in the second quarter after neither team was able to put points on the board in the first. Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Evan Lewandowski, who hurt the Vikings’ defense multiple times on Saturday by scrambling to avoid pressure and finding receivers deep down field, connected with Steven Hein for a 56-yard touchdown pass to make it 7-0 with 10:04 remaining in the first half.
On the next drive, the Warhawks went on a long drive that culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by Preston Strasburg with 4:20 remaining in the second quarter to make it 14-0.
Lewandowski finished with 301 yards through the air on 19-of-32 passing with one touchdown and one interception. Hein had a huge day as well with 175 yards on six catches and the touchdowns, and Tommy Coates added 52 yards on four catches.
The Warhawks’ leading rusher was Tamir Thomas with 54 yards on 14 carries.
Kunczewski said with as talented as Wisconsin-Whitewater’s offense is he was pleased with the way his defense played tough and made things tough on them but Lewandowski’s big day was a bit of a difference-maker.
“I’m really proud of how we competed,” said Kunczewski. “I didn’t think we’ve done a great job of stopping the run the first two weeks, and we did a good job of making it tough for them to run it today. They are an offense with a lot of size that likes to run it right at you so we played well considering that. But give their quarterback credit. He took some shots and was able to scramble a few times and keep his eyes down the field for receivers.”
The Berry defense was led by Brock Skinner who had nine total tackles (six solo, three assists), including two tackles-for-loss and one fumble recovery. John Mancuso and Chris Lewis each contributed seven tackles, and Jake Whitten added six, including a tackle-for-loss. Willis had a stellar day in the secondary as the junior corner broke up three passes to go with his interception.
Offensively, Gray passed for 229 yards on 15-of-37 throws with one interception. Deiondre Wilson was his leading receiver with 84 yards on five catches, and tight end Trace Wells had some big catches as well with three total for 70 yards.
Brandon Cade led a Vikings’ rushing game that was bottled up for much of the day by the tough Warhawks’ front seven as the sophomore running back had 40 yards on nine carries. Josh Rogers added 22 yards on eight carries.
Along with his 52-yard field goal, Syverson punted eight times for an average of 37.3 per pun and a long of 44.
Berry will now have a week off before traveling to Birmingham-Southern on Oct. 1 for a 7 p.m. kickoff to open Southern Athletic Association play.
“The schedule sets up perfectly for us with the week off after today,” said Kunczewski. “We had a physical, tough game today, but now we have two weeks to prepare for a very good Birmingham-Southern team and hopefully we can get a little rest and get some guys healthy.”