WHITEWATER, Wis. (AP) Thanks to junior running back Dennis Moore and a resilient defense, departing Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold gets one last shot at yet another national title.
Moore scored on a 33-yard run with five minutes remaining to give the defending champion Warhawks a 20-14 victory over Linfield on Saturday in the Division III semifinals.
Top-ranked Whitewater (14-0), which has won five of the last seven national titles, will face No. 3 Mount Union (14-0) next Friday night in the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va. Mount Union, which lost to Whitewater in last year's final, advanced with a 70-21 rout of fourth-ranked Wesley. It will be the ninth time in 10 seasons that Whitewater and Mount Union have met in the final, with the Warhawks winning five.
The victory gives Leipold a shot at his sixth championship in his final game before he takes over at the University of Buffalo. Leipold is 108-6 at Whitewater, including 33-1 in the playoffs. The Warhawks have won 31 consecutive games, the longest winning streak in any division of college football.
''It's not about my last game,'' said Leipold. ''It's about our players and the chance to play a 15th ballgame. That's where the focus needs to be. They earned their chance to be there, just like Mount Union has.''
Moore's run capped a nine-play, 80-yard go-ahead drive after Linfield had rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie it 14-14. The conversion kick was blocked.
''It was a great block from the O-line. I think I broke one tackle and just tried to cross field and outran guys,'' said Moore, who finished with 112 yards on 19 carries. ''It was just a great spark for the team. We needed something at that point, we needed a spark and that was that.''
The 10th-ranked Wildcats (11-2) drove to the Whitewater 20 on its last possession, but quarterback Sam Riddle was sacked and fumbled on fourth-and-3. The Warhawks then got the one first down needed to run out the clock. It was the fourth time Whitewater has knocked Linfield out of the playoffs.
''We had our chances,'' said Linfield coach Joseph Smith. ''As poorly as we played in the first half, on the things that we could control, to come back and have a chance to win that game, I was really proud of our guys.''
Riddle, who was limited to 64 yards passing and one yard rushing in the first half, engineered two third-quarter scoring drives as the Wildcats, who entered averaging 47.7 points per game, erased a 14-0 deficit.
Linfield was awarded a recovery on a Warhawk fumble at the Whitewater 33 after officials overturned the on-field call after review. The Wildcats responded with a six-play scoring drive, capped by Riddle's 14-yard pass to tight end Levi Altringer.
On their ensuing possession, the Wildcats tied it at 14-14 when Riddle capped an 88-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run.
The comeback was typical of a Linfield team that played its final playoff games on the road, traveling almost 7,000 miles, and suffered the tragic death of a player when sophomore linebacker Parker Moore was stabbed in a convenience store after the last regular-season game.
''I have to take my hat off to Joe Smith and Linfield,'' said Leipold. ''An excellent football team, but you really look at everything that they've had to go through, through this playoff run. The tragedy within their program, the travel, the way had to go through to get to this point and then play down to the wire like that. That's what you hope for when you get to this point of the season, that you have those games.''
The Warhawks took a 14-0 halftime lead behind two touchdown passes from Matt Behrendt. Whitewater's first score was set up by a punt downed at the Linfield 1. On the first play, Riddle's pass from his own end zone was intercepted by safety Ryan Winske at the Linfield 32. After two running plays gained 11 and 13 yards, Behrendt hit Jake Kumerow with an 8-yard scoring pass to make it 7-0 with 4:56 left in the first quarter.
Whitewater's second score came when Linfield's all-out blitz was countered by a screen pass to running back Dennis Moore for a 46-yard touchdown.
Late in the half, the Warhawks recovered a mishandled punt at the Linfield 16, but Behrendt's third-down pass was intercepted in the end zone by Kyle Belcher.
Ironically, longtime Whitewater coach Forrest Perkins, for whom the Warhawks stadium is named, died earlier Saturday at the age of 94. Perkins coached Whitewater for 29 seasons, from 1956 through 1984, compiling a 189-89-7 record. He also was the school's athletic director, as well as its first baseball coach and track and field coach.