BLOOMINGTON — With six national championships in the last 10 years, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Wisconsin-Whitewater the Alabama of Division III football.
The Warhawks roll into Tucci Stadium to face Illinois Wesleyan in Saturday's 1 p.m. season opener for both teams. While the Titans have been hyped for this challenge since it was announced in January, they realize emotions must be somewhat kept in check.
"Coach (Norm) Eash always says respect everyone, but fear no one. In that apsect, we're treating Wisconsin-Whitewater like a normal week one," said IWU senior tight end Andrew Apel. "We respect them like any opponent.
"But there's an added anticipation because it's such a big game and in front of our home fans. We know the whole town and (our) families will be out, so from that aspect we're definitely excited."
This definitely qualifies as the greatest opening-game test in Eash's 31 years as head coach of his alma mater.
"When they (the Warhawks) take the field they expect to win. It's a great opportunity for us to play that caliber of team in our opening game," said Eash. "We feel we're a top-25 program in Division III. We have to play our best if we (want to) have a chance to win."
Whitewater is ranked No. 3 in the D3football.com Preseason Top 25. The Warhawks advanced to the Division III quarterfinals for the 11th time in 12 years last season while going 11-1.
The only time IWU has played Whitewater came in the second round of the 2009 Division III playoffs. The Warhawks cruised to a 45-7 victory en route to the national title.
Kevin Bullis, in his third year as Whitewater's head coach after serving as an assistant for seven years, said his program is really not that different from IWU.
"You have two teams with very good tradition and that's one reason why our two teams have won traditionally is we keep our kids focused on the present and the next game," said Bullis. "Coach Eash has done that for many, many years. I'm a young head coach compared to him.
"The key piece in sport is generally to keep kids locked in on this game and what you need to do. Your expectation and standard is what you set for your kids."
Whitewater returns 10 of 11 offensive players who started in last year's quarterfinal loss to John Carroll. Quarterback Cole Wilber threw for 1,868 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while tailback Josh Ringelberg rushed for 342 yards.
A veteran offensive line is led by preseason All-American Nate Trewyn, a 310-pound junior who has moved from center to tackle. Eash expects the Warhawks to come out and try to establish the run, which is fine with IWU defensive tackle Justin Krzeczkowski.
"Our No. 1 goal this week is stop the run game and make them pass, make them feel a little uncomfortable because running is their bread and butter," said Krzeczkowski.
IWU figures to have a couple of advantages working in its favor.
The Titans will be playing their first regular-season game under new defensive coordinator Jeff McDonald. The teams exchanged two game films from last season, but Whitewater isn't exactly sure what McDonald will do.
Eash also has not tipped his hand about whether senior Jack Warner or sophomore Brandon Bauer will be IWU's starting quarterback. Warner started his first two years, but missed last year after knee surgery. Bauer led IWU to a five-game winning streak to close last season and finish off a 7-2 campaign.
"They have two veteran quarterbacks, which is terribly unique," said Bullis. "No doubt you have to adapt as the game goes along and be aware how you need to change."