Wisconsin Offense Washed Out By Rain, Pitt [Presented By Spin Ultimate]

Wisconsin wilts in the weather.

Pat Earles lays out for the grab in the quarterfinals against Wisconsin. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Pat Earles lays out for the grab in the quarterfinals against Wisconsin. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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With UMass, Oregon, and Wilmington all eliminated, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh were two of the three top seeds still alive in Raleigh heading into Sunday play, and their showdown in the quarterfinals meant that only one of these renowned programs could survive to the semifinals. In the end, it was Pitt left standing after edging the Hodags 14-12.

After two days of punishing heat, the weather in Raleigh offered teams a new challenge this morning in the form of torrential rain. Pittsburgh got out to a hot start, as the rain limited Wisconsin’s deep game. All weekend long, the Hodags had managed to score in only a few throws, usually off of flick bombs from Craig Cox. When on the first few possessions Cox got the disc in power position and didn’t let it fly, it was a clear indication that the rain had thrown a wrench into Wisconsin’s game plan.

With Wisconsin dissuaded from launching their typical hucks, they were forced to work the disc underneath. Pitt responded by forcing Wisconsin’s cutters out, and slagging off of the sideline cutters of Wisconsin’s horizontal stack to take away angles in the middle of the field, making it very tough for the Hodag cutters to operate. Without the middle of the field open and with the rain making it hard to hit pinpoint over-the-top throws to the sideline, the emphasis was on Wisconsin to complete multiple horizontal throws to move the disc and open up angles of attack. In the heavy rain, this presented its own difficulties, and on the third point of the game Wisconsin’s Ross Barker let a wet disc slip through his mitts and Pittsburgh capitalized via a Sam Vandusen flick huck that gave Pitt the first break of the game and a 2-1 lead.

Pittsburgh would get two more breaks in the first half, generating turns by sitting on Wisconsin’s backhands and forcing them to make tough forehand throws in the deluge. While Wisconsin’s defense had been able to create a few turnovers, their D-Line offense was paltry and often couldn’t move the disc more than 15 -20 yards before giving it back to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s D-Line, much maligned in recent years for not being able to convert, looked much better, grinding short upline cuts for hard-earned but valuable yards and taking their opportunities with aplomb near the endzone.

When Pitt made it 6-3 on a Saul Graves strike cut into the endzone, it could have been a breaking point for Wisconsin, but the Hodags were able to punch in the hold on a crafty inside break from Avery Johnson to Craig Cox. “It would have been easier for a less experienced team to panic and look for quick outs at that point” said Wisconsin coach Hector Valdivia. “But our defense kept up the pressure and our offense clamped down.”

As the game approached the end of the first half the rain began to slow, and with the sun peeking out from behind the cloud cover, Wisconsin’s defense came to life, demonstrating apparent photosynthetic qualities. When Max Thorne overthrew Pat Earles in the back of the endzone, Wisconsin drove down the field for their first break of the game, and punched in a second after forcing a tough high-release from Trent Dillon at the end of a stall count to tie up the score at 7-7. Now it was Pittsburgh’s turn to respond to pressure, as they came out on the line needing to hold to take half.

“It reminded me of our 2013 semifinal against Oregon, where we could have gone into half 8-5 but gave up two breaks to tie it up” said Pitt assistant coach Dave Hogan. “In 2013 we responded by going with our bread and butter, Alex (Thorne) hucking it to Tyler (Degirolamo). We did the same thing today.” That bread and butter was Pat Earles hucking to Max Thorne, which worked out for Pitt just as it did three years ago, with Thorne beating Aaron Speiss in a footrace to reel in the goal that gave Pitt an 8-7 lead.

When the second half kicked off, the rain had all but stopped, and Wisconsin took advantage by breaking again to tie the game 8-8. With the game back even, the offenses on both teams started to adjust and each ran off a string of holds. Wisconsin responded to Pitt’s force out and poaches by sweeping a cutter from the sideline across the middle, which provided just enough space for their cutters to work the disc downfield. Pittsburgh used Wisconsin’s aggressive defense against them, getting them to bite on force side fakes and working the disc on around breaks.

The big moment happened at 11-11, when Wisconsin’s center handler Avery Johnson threw a turn on the first throw, not seeing Pitt’s Kevin Tang poaching in the handler lane as the soft cap horn blew. Pittsburgh worked the disc to senior Carl Morgenstern who sent a hammer to a waiting Tang in the back of the endzone that gave Pitt their first break of the second half and put them in the driver’s seat with a 12-10 lead, game to 14.

The teams traded holds to 13-12 but not without drama, as Pitt just missed on a huck that could have given them another break and Max Thorne leaped stupifingly high to pluck a Trent Dillon huck out of the air over Sterling Knoche.

Pitt received, just needing to hold to win the game and advance to semifinals. They fastidiously worked the disc downfield into the teeth of Wisconsin’s man defense, with every throw squeezed into tight windows just out of the range of the hungry Hodag defenders. Wisconsin finally got the break they needed near Pitt’s attacking brick mark, when Andrew Lehmberg turfed an I/O flick, giving the Hodags a chance to score and force double game point.

Wisconsin took a timeout to set their offense, and while the teams huddled the skies opened up and unleashed a deluge of rain, just in time for the game’s dramatic final moments. With the sidelines and packed stands going crazy amidst the downpour, chaos ensued on the field. Aaron Speiss dropped Wisconsin’s first throw, but promptly got the disc back after Pitt’s Jack Slevin underthrew an O/I flick to the endzone.

Wisconsin turned again on a swing near the goal line, but a Sterling Knoche layout block regained possession for the Hodags, only for Christian Pitts to knock a low huck out of the sky and earn the disc back to En Sabah Nur. With both teams scrambling to get in position after the flurry of turnovers, Trent Dillon took advantage of the chaos and launched a skyscraping break backhand into the endzone towards Kyle Heartley and his defender. Time seemed to stop for a moment as the fate of the game and Wisconsin’s season hung in the air along with the disc.

Moments later, the disc was in Hartley’s hands and Pittsburgh were rushing the field to celebrate with the sophomore who made an incredible read and leap on the disc to send En Sabah Nur into the semifinals. It was one of several important plays made by Hartley, who made his mark on Pitt’s O-line after slowly earning the role over the course of the season. “It was surreal” said Hartley after the game. “In that moment, I just wanted to focus on cutting hard and using my athleticism, and I guess I’m lucky Trent made such a great throw.”

For Wisconsin, the loss came as quite a blow after they had been easily the most dominant team at the tournament before this morning and were beginning to feel that this was their year. It has now been four years since the legendary program has made the semifinals, but with the quality of players coming through the Hodag system, there’s always next year for Wisconsin. “We’re returning 20 of our 26 players” said Valdvia after the game. “As soon as the season ends we think about what we’re going to do to prepare for next year, and right now it’s the start of the 2017 season,”

For Pittsburgh, the win sends them back to the semifinals after big upsets the past two years ended their seasons in quarters. Unlike the past two seasons, Pittsburgh did not come in as a one seed in 2016, and perhaps their tumultuous road to Nationals toughened them for games just like this. “Losing in Regionals helped us so much” said Hogan. “We’ve had our backs against the wall already this season, so we were ready for today.”

Pitt will face another tough North Central opponent in Minnesota this evening, and they’ll need to get back to the level they played at this morning if they want to continue their quest for a title on Monday. If they can continue to get production out of their D-line role players, and the big four of Dillon, Thorne, Earles and Pitts play to their potential, then Pittsburgh could very well make it to Monday, and possibly add a third National Championship to their trophy case.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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