WHITEWATER — The stunned expression on Lee Brekke’s face just about said it all.
In the aftermath of the top-ranked UW-Whitewater football team’s shocking 7-6 non-conference loss to Buffalo State — a team which came up with its lone score Saturday afternoon at Perkins Stadium on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Casey Kacz to Ryan Carney with just 3 seconds to play — all the Warhawks’ senior quarterback could do was try to make the best of an unfathomable situation.
“It (stinks) to lose. That’s why we play football; we want to win every game,” said Brekke, a former Sun Prairie athlete who saw the Warhawks’ nation-best, 46-game winning streak end nine wins short of Mount Union’s all-time mark of 55. “It’s tough that we lose one now, but honestly, it doesn’t hurt us. Yeah, we’ll fall in the rankings, but to be honest, we don’t really give a (darn) about that.”
Despite a lackluster offensive performance, Whitewater (1-1), the three-time defending NCAA Division III champion, appeared to be on the verge of escaping with a win.
With the Warhawks nursing a 6-0 lead and exactly 1 minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Buffalo State took its final timeout to set up for fourth-and-19 after Kacz was sacked at his 30-yard line by Mykaell Bratchett.
And the Bengals (2-1) managed to convert when Kacz — who had thrown two interceptions and lost a fumble up to that point — connected with Carney to start a hook-and-ladder play up the right sideline that gained 34 yards following laterals to running backs Rich Pete and Brooks Estarfaa.
"We practice that play every week for a situation like that," said Kacz, a junior transfer from Division II Edinboro (Pa.) University. "And the crazy part about it is we had four receivers in the play; two or three have never ran it because we had injuries today and the week before. So we had guys ask, 'What do I do?' … We had to explain it to them, on the field, what they were doing."
Said Whitewater junior Kyle Wismer: “We were playing a little conservative. Us linebackers backed up like 10 yards, so you rally to the ball and they made good pitches.”
Although Buffalo State was accessed a 15-yard penalty for a deadball foul following the play, the Bengals wasted little time moving into scoring position when Kacz hit Manny Brooks for a 33-yard screen three snaps later.
Facing third-and-goal from Whitewater’s 10 with 7 seconds remaining, Kacz aligned all of his receivers but Carney to the right side of the formation, instead isolating the sophomore wideout to the left to run a slant-and-go route for what proved to be the winning score.
"I told him, 'Run and get open, and I'll just put it on you,' and I can still hardly remember the play," Kacz said. "My head was in another place. It feels crazy that it actually worked."
Although only a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title is needed to keep the Warhawks’ playoff hopes alive, the road to a fourth-straight Stagg Bowl championship has almost certainly increased in difficulty.
“We have some guys in this program who have never practiced after a loss,” said Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, whose team's 30-game home winning streak was also snapped. “But I’m confident in the kids we have here, that they’re going to work hard and accept the challenge.”
While Leipold wouldn't use the word "surprised" to describe his team's offensive struggles, he said the transition from former quarterback Matt Blanchard back to Brekke, who started five postseason games to end the 2010 season, hasn't exactly been seamless.
Whitewater finished with its lowest scoring output since a 7-6 loss at UW-Platteville nearly eight years ago, finishing with a pair turnovers and two missed field goals.
"We've been fortunate to have a lot of good players in this program the past few years and sometimes, you know, everyone thinks cause Lee started some games over two years ago he's just going to magically step in and it's all gonna keep moving again," Leipold said. "And as you can see, I don't know how (Buffalo State) lost last week. My respect goes to that conference."