Wisconsin-Whitewater survived a stretch of 16 unanswered points by Morningside to win Thursday’s battle of the No. 1s. Photo / Gene Knudsen

Connor Niles

Tyler Kavan

Thursday’s battle of the No. 1s between the top ranked teams in the nation in the NAIA and NCAA III divisions came down to the wire before two-time defending NCAA III National Champion Wisconsin-Whitewater edged Morningside 33-30 in a game that was played in a steady downpour.

The Warhawks, who have captured six of the last eight NCAA III titles, extended their winning streak to 35 games to keep alive the longest active win streak in the nation for all levels of college football.

Morningside was its own worst enemy for much of the contest. The Mustangs fumbled the ball six times, and though they only lost one of them, the miscues stalled several drives and the fumble they did lose led to a Warhawk field goal. The Mustangs were flagged 10 times for 75 yards in penalty yards, while Wisconsin-Whitewater finished with only two penalties for 21 yards.

The Mustangs trailed for most of the contest, but had the Warhawks’ winning streak in serious jeopardy when they reeled off 16 unanswered points to battle back from a 26-14 deficit and take a 30-26 lead with just 4:19 left to play.

Wisconsin-Whitewater answered with its longest drive of the game by marching 75 yards in eight plays, capped by a six-yard touchdown run by Jordan Ratliffe, to take a 33-30 lead with 38 seconds left.

The touchdown run capped a huge game for Ratliffe, who rushed for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 30 attempts.

Ratliffe’s running and a 218-yard passing performance by Warhawk quarterback Chris Nelson led the guests to a 423 to 402-yard advantage in total offense. The Mustangs, who entered the game as the NAIA national leader in total offense with an average of 662.2 yards per game, were held to their lowest yardage total since they had 245 yards in a 35-0 loss against eventual national champion Grand View in the 2013 NAIA Semifinals.

Most of the Mustangs’ offensive yardage came from the trio of Ryan Kasdorf, Connor Niles, and Tyler Kavan. Kasdorf completed 17 of 23 pass attempts for 261 yards and a touchdown, Niles had 137 yards on a career-high nine pass receptions, and Kavan rushed for a career-high 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 21 attempts.

Zac Schleuger

Sean Fitzgerald

The Mustangs had several players come up big on defense, led by Zac Schleuger, who collected a game-high 13 tackles, including a quarterback sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage for losses of eight yards. Taylor James also made double figures with a career-high 10 tackles and Ethan Stofferan just missed with nine stops. Christian Walker had a season’s high eight tackles, forced a fumble, and blocked a Wisconsin-Whitewater PAT attempt, while Sean Fitzgerald had a career-high eight tackles, recovered a fumble, blocked a Warhawk field goal attempt, and combined with Jason Lupkes to sack Nelson for a seven-yard loss.

Wisconsin-Whitewater led 7-0 after the first quarter on a five-yard touchdown run by Nelson and stretched its lead to 10-0 when Ben Franzen kicked a 22-yard field goal nine seconds into the second period.

Morningside closed within 10-7 when Kasdorf completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Briar Evans to finish off an impressive 11-play, 75-yard drive, but the Warhawks benefited from a favorable break less than one minute later when a Nelson pass was deflected by a Morningside defender and bounced into the hands of Tony Gumina, who raced untouched to the end zone to complete a 54-yard touchdown play. Walker blocked the Warhawks’ PAT attempt to keep the difference at 16-7 with 9:44 left in the half.

The Mustangs’ defense forced a turnover to help the hosts close within 16-14 at the intermission. Walker stripped the ball from the Warhawks’ Joe Worth and Fitzgerald recovered the fumble and ran seven yards before he was brought down on Wisconsin-Whitewater 23-yard line. Morningside scored four plays later on a two-yard touchdown run by Kasdorf.

Wisconsin-Whitewater used a pair of third quarter scores with a 44-yard field goal by Lake Bachar and a three-yard touchdown run by Ratliffe to open its largest lead of the game at 26-14 with 2:00 left in the quarter.

The Mustangs appeared to turn the tide when they reeled off 16 straight points to take the lead. Morningside closed within 26-21 when Kavan broke loose for a 46-yard touchdown run with 25 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Mustangs drove 89 yards, 57 of them on a pass from Kasdorf to Niles, on their next possession to take their first lead of the game when a 17-yard touchdown run by Kavan put them up 27-26 with 6:45 remaining.

Morningside had an opportunity to apply the knockout punch after Tony Heimer recovered a Nelson fumble to give the Mustangs the ball on the Warhawks’ 17-yard line. However, a delay of game penalty followed by a holding penalty pushed the Mustangs back 15 yards and forced them to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Jared Amundson to put them up 30-26 with 4:19 remaining.

Nelson completed a pair of passes that went for 46 yards and Ratliffe ran for 23 yards in four carries when the Warhawks marched 75 yards for the deciding touchdown to keep their win streak alive.

Morningside will attempt to rebound when it travels to Orange City, Iowa, to take on 10th-ranked Northwestern on Saturday, Oct. 3, at 1:30 p.m.

Box Score