An adjustment by the UW-La Crosse coaching and training staff this season is paying big dividends for the undefeated Eagles.
However, the change isn’t an X’s-and-O’s scheme or a new drill — a tweak in the practice week schedule and the intensity of each practice has given UW-L added life when game time comes, and the results are there to prove it.
The Eagles (4-0, 1-0 WIAC) hope that trend continues in today’s 11:30 a.m. tilt against WIAC rival UW-Eau Claire (1-3, 0-1). The game, UW-L’s third at Veterans Memorial Field this season, is a chance for the program to lock in a second consecutive .500-or-better season for the first time since 2006-07.
UW-L coach Mike Schmidt said this week that throughout the offseason, he met with Dr. Glenn Wright — the team’s sports performance coach, and a professor and graduate degree program director for the university — to discuss ways to better monitor players’ recovery and fatigue rates.
Wright studied research conducted around the country, in particular at the University of Oregon under then coach Chip Kelly, and suggested to Schmidt that the Eagles design a practice schedule focused on peaking physiologically on game day. Wright and a team of his graduate students are also conducting studies throughout the season with chest straps players wear during practice that monitor their heart rates and other indicators of fatigue.
“He thought it was going to be good, so I listened to him and here we are,” Schmidt said with a laugh early this week. “The feeling of the week is so much fun. It’s been a huge benefit on the physical side. You can look around and we have no soft-tissue injuries right now.”
Schmidt said UW-L will only be missing four players of the 105-man roster going into today’s game.
Last season, the Eagles would have Mondays off before getting back to the practice field for more intense sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays before tapering off later in the week. Now, UW-L practices Monday through Friday, with Monday being a mild-intensity practice focused on situation drills — special teams, red zone, etc. — and introducing the game plan for the week. Tuesdays are the most intense day of hitting, and then Wednesdays are a helmets-only day focused on recovering physically. Thursdays and Fridays are shorter, but faster periods to build up to game day.
“Last year, we really saw toward the middle of the week our bodies were worn out. We peaked too early in the week,” senior quarterback Tarek Yaeggi said. “Wednesday practice that’s lighter after tough Tuesday practices, our bodies are able to recover a little bit more. It can be hard on Mondays, because you’re a little sore still from the game, but you come out here and focus in.
“It’s a little different, but I like it because in the middle of the week can be busier with school, too, so you get some more time to study and things like that.”
The new practice model has resulted in a healthier and productive Eagles team, which is leading the conference in passing offense (295.2 yards per game) and total defense (232.8 ypg).
The Blugolds handed UW-L its most disappointing loss last season, a 20-14 defeat that was the second of a five-game losing streak to end the 2016 campaign. It was the team’s worst output offensively of the year, and was Eau Claire’s lone win of 2016.
“You look back on it now, and it’s probably a blessing that we did lose that game. It’s hard to say that, but I think we learned a lot from that,” Schmidt said. “The players remember that, how bad that hurt to lose a game we shouldn’t have lost, and we can look at it now as a learning tool and get ready for Saturday. “
To avenge the loss this season, UW-L will have to slow Blugolds’ quarterback J.T. DenHartog, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior that is as important to the Blugolds on the ground as he is through the air.
DenHartog is the team’s leading rusher with 292 net yards, averaging 73 per game. He has completed 52 percent of his passes for 532 yards this season. The Blugolds, averaging a conference-low 13.5 points per game, have been hampered by poor offensive line play, allowing 12 sacks.
UW-L players said despite the Blugolds rough start, they know what can happen if they don’t play their best against them.
“We’ve been playing this kid for three years, I feel like he’s been there forever,” senior defensive lineman and two-time defending WIAC defensive player of the week Brandon McKandes said. “He’s a great athlete, he can make some plays. If we leave our responsibilities open, he’s definitely going to make us pay for them.
“If we do everything we do in the schemes coach (Matt) Janus (UW-L’s defensive coordinator) has drawn up, I think we’ll be OK.”