Local Sports

Saturday, October 06, 2012

UF Football: Championship teams won with remarkable drives


Playoff runs are often defined by legendary moments.

For the 1992 and 1997 University of Findlay football teams, remarkable drives with the game on the line helped keep both teams on the road to NAIA championship glory.

Rewind 20 years.

It's a cold December morning in Western Pennsylvania and head coach Dick Strahm looks out the window of his hotel room and sees blowing snow.

The Oilers were set to battle Westminster in an NAIA national quarterfinal later in the day. Now, the Oilers would not only have to battle the No. 1 Titans, but they would have to overcome the weather conditions as well.

The grass playing surface of Westminster's Memorial Field was buried under a blanket of white when the Oilers arrived at the stadium, although the yard lines had been shoveled off prior to kickoff.

"My whole game plan went out the window because of the weather and we were about to play the best team in the country," Strahm said. "Things were going to be interesting."

Interesting might have been an understatement.

Tied at 7-7 in the fourth quarter, the Oilers pieced together a drive that seemed unlikely. It covered 20 plays, 80 yards, lasted 9 minutes and 5 seconds and featured 19 running plays.

The exclamation point was a 1-yard touchdown run by Balewa Walker on third-and-goal with 1:52 remaining.

The 13-7 win kept UF on course for the program's second national championship, which it won two weeks later with a 26-13 victory over Linfield (Ore.).

"I had decided before the drive began that we weren't going to punt no matter what because we knew we probably wouldn't get the ball back," Strahm said. "We were determined to get the ball in the end zone."

DeMya Wimberly was the quarterback of the 1992 team and showed no signs of lacking confidence against the Titans.

As soon as Chris Rotthaar picked off a pass in the end zone to give the Oilers the ball back, Wimberly was ready to go to work.

"My guys always knew that, as a quarterback, I would do whatever it took to help our team win," Wimberly said. "We were extremely confident. There was three inches of snow on the ground and both teams lined up and played physical football. That drive summed up everything we had worked for all season. We were not going to be denied."

Five years later, the Oilers found themselves staring in the eyes of postseason adversity again.

Only this time, a trip to the national championship game was on the line in a showdown at Donnell Stadium with seventh-ranked Doane College out of Nebraska.

Down 25-18 with just more than six minutes to play, the No. 1 Oilers marched 68 yards and capped their comeback when Bo Hurley hit Craig Aukerman on a 5-yard scoring strike with 1:58 to play in the fourth.

Aukerman, a defensive back from McComb, was filling in for the injured Jason Hamby.

"I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember us making a lot of big plays," Hurley said. "Our season came down to that drive and we were confident we could put a good one together. Our goal that whole year was to win a championship. We didn't want the season to end."

After the TD, the Oilers were set to line up for the extra-point attempt and then hope for overtime. But when the Tigers were hit with penalties for having 12 men on the field and for jumping offsides, Strahm changed his plan of attack.

"I called timeout and told our team we were going for two," Strahm said. "We got a break because we were worn down from going up against the fastest defense we had seen all season. I'm not sure we would have had enough left to win the game in overtime."

Strahm never had to find out.

Chris Jacquillard stood in the backfield as the Oilers set up for the two-point conversion and surged into the end zone for a 26-24 advantage.

The lead held up as Aukerman rung up two sacks on third and fourth downs to stall Doane's last gasp for a win.

UF won its fourth and final national title a week later, earning a 13-7 win over Willamette (Ore.). The victory capped the only perfect season in program history as the Oilers finished 14-0.

"It was a great way to end a season and a career," said Hurley, who was named the NAIA Player of the Year. "It's hard to believe it's been 15 years, but when you look back at it now, you realize just how special it was. It's something all of us on the team will always remember."

The drives were unique, and yet, they were similar in the fact that both propelled the Oilers on to bigger and better things.

"Without those drives, we don't win those national titles," Strahm said. "It's hard to compare the two teams, but both of them had good senior classes and both of them were motivated to win championships."

The 1997 team will be honored Saturday at Donnell Stadium when the Oilers host Tiffin in a noon Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game. The 1992 team was recognized last weekend.

The 1992 team finished 12-1, winning six games by 20 or more points. Its only loss was to Westminster, which rolled to a 30-17 victory in Week 5.

"Winning a championship meant a lot to all of us, especially for the guys who had never won anything at any level of football," Wimberly said. "It was special to accomplish it with my teammates. No one can ever take it from you. I'm proud of what we were able to do that season and proud of Findlay for winning two more titles after us."

The 1997 squad was also on a mission. The Oilers stumbled 28-21 to Western Washington in the semifinal round of the 1996 playoffs but played inspired throughout 1997, beating nine opponents by 20 or more points. The Oilers scored a school-record 567 points and allowed 179.

Jason Granger, the color analyst for UF football, was an offensive lineman on that team. He is proud of what the Oilers were able to accomplish 15 years ago.

"We had a lot of great players, but everyone was able to come together and make it happen," Granger said. "Going undefeated is truly special. It gives you a sense of pride to be a part of a team that helped define coach Strahm's hall of fame career."

Lester: 419-422-5151,


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