And then there were two. Top-ranked UW-Whitewater and No. 6 Northern Illinois staved off upsets in the Midwest semifinals Saturday to advance to Sunday’s final.
Whitewater avenged a slow start against UW-Milwaukee earlier in the season by racing out to a 33-5 halftime lead over the Panthers Saturday. The defending national champion Warhawks held serve in the set pieces and returned Milwaukee’s probing kicks well.
In the second half, however, Milwaukee outscored the Warhawks 17-5.
“We still had the ability to put points on the board, to stop them and control the game,” said Whitewater coach Pat O’Connor. “I think they had a better halftime speech than I gave our guys. Sometimes that’s what it comes down to.”
Northern Illinois, 35-10 winners over Ohio, had a tougher start to their semifinal. The Huskies traded blows with Ohio early on en route to a 15-10 halftime lead.
“Ohio was a physical team,” said Northern Illinois’ Ryan Dertinger. “We answered the challenge that their coaches put out and we came and matched aggression.”
In the second half, NIU amped up their defensive effort to stymie the Bobcats and generate some offense of their own.
“We weren’t attacking on defense like we normally do, and in the second half we came up, kept our faces towards the ball, came up hard and came up fast and stopped them at the gainline,” said Dertinger. “There were a couple of times when they were down inside our 22 and we had to stay strong.”
Whitewater and NIU played at the same time Saturday, so neither team was able to scout the other extensively. Still, they think they have an idea of what to expect Sunday.
“They’re a big team, they’re a big, fast team,” said Dertinger of Whitewater. “They are the defending national champions, so we have to show them their respect. We have to go in there and play smart, sound rugby.”
“They have some powerful runners back there that we need to just tackle to get the ball back, but if we don’t tackle them they’re going to go score,” said O’Connor. “It’s very simple; powerful runners, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Sunday’s winner will take the Midwest’s top seed to the Sweet 16 and face the West’s second seed. Sunday’s loser gets the Midwest’s second seed and will draw the West champ.