BLOOMINGTON — As Illinois Wesleyan's football players raced over to the sideline in front of their fans to sing the school song Saturday, a scream could be heard from one of the delirious Titans.
"Shock the nation, baby!"
Indeed, that was just what happened on a sun-splashed afternoon at Tucci Stadium that the IWU players will remember for the rest of their lives.
Two touchdown passes from Brandon Bauer to Jack Healy and two huge fumble recoveries by Trevor Koepke led the Titans to a stunning 17-10 season-opening victory over No. 3-ranked Division III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater.
"I would say anyone with Titans across their chest were the only ones that gave us a chance," said IWU senior middle linebacker Jordan Hassan.
Whitewater has won six of the last 10 Division III national titles and been to the playoff quarterfinal round in 11 of the last 12 years. The Warhawks entered the season with a 33-2 nonconference record since 2005 and riding a 13-game winning streak in season openers.
"I'm sure Coach (Don) Larson is up there looking down," said IWU coach Norm Eash of his late former coach. "I'm sure he would say the same thing I'm going to say. That was one of the top performances by a Titan football team in the history of our program. It's at the top of my (31-year) tenure, the very top."
When Eash told his team during a meeting in January they would be opening the season against Whitewater, he said the room "erupted."
On Saturday, the Titans backed that up.
"We had it in our minds when we found out we were first playing them," said IWU senior center Mike Mulcrone. "We were up for the challenge. That's what we wanted."
Whitewater advanced the ball to the Titan 1-yard line on three different occasions in the game. All the Warhawks got was three points on Wojciech Gasienica's 18-yard field goal in the second quarter.
A snap that sailed over the quarterback's head was recovered by Koepke at the 26 late in the first half, allowing the Titans to take a 7-3 lead into the intermission.
Then, on Whitewater's last-chance drive, an errant snap went through Merrick Gentile's hands and Koepke, a sophomore cornerback, was there again to pounce on the ball at the 10 with 58 seconds left.
The Titans got a first down and ran out the clock as the celebration began on the field.
"We knew we could do it. Our team fought so hard. I've never seen any team play like this ever," said Bauer. "It was the most amazing thing ... we were the better team today. It's a statement to all D-III football. It's exciting, but its one step of many."
Bauer, a sophomore, was told Friday he would be IWU's starter after a preseason battle with senior Jack Warner, who sat out last year with a knee injury after starting the two previous years.
After Whitewater took a 3-0 lead, Bauer led the Titans on a 12-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with a 21-yard strike on a slant pattern to the 6-foot-5 Healy.
IWU extended the lead to 10-3 when senior Anthony Sciarini connected on his first-ever field goal, a 40-yarder, with 10:38 left in the third quarter.
Whitewater forged a 10-all tie as Cole Wilber connected with Canton Larson late in the third quarter.
After IWU's Francis Urbanski recovered a Whitewater fumble at the Titans' 30 on the second play of the fourth quarter, the IWU offense responded.
Three key third-down conversions helped keep a 14-play drive alive that ended when Bauer hit Healy in the back of the end zone with a 5-yard TD pass with 8:02 remaining.
The IWU defense, in its first regular-season game under new coordinator Jeff McDonald, held Whitewater to 42 yards rushing. Wilber completed 22 of 37 attempts for 258 yards.
The Warhawks' inability to score from the 1 made for a long three-hour bus ride home.
"It's just stepping up and who was going to be a bigger man at the goal line," said Hassan. "It's a bend-but-don't break philosophy. The field is 100 yards for a reason."
Bauer completed 17 of 32 attempts for 128 yards. Morgan Alexander led the IWU running game with 94 yards on 15 carries, while Healy had five receptions for 61 yards.
"I can't say enough about our players believing that we expected to win and how hard they played," said Eash, whose day got off to a good start earlier when became a grandfather for the sixth time. "It was exactly the matchup we thought. They were huge upfront. Our kids played low on defense and they played quick. I think we outquicked them."