Say what you want about its quality of opponents. Say what you want about the opposing offenses it has played. Say whatever you want, but you can’t deny this: The UW-La Crosse football team has been dominant in its first two tests this season.
The Eagles (2-0) followed up Week 1’s 45-14 win at Luther College with a 65-14 rout in their home-opener on Saturday against Ripon to move to 2-0 for the first time since 2009. Neither game was competitive past halftime, and the team’s new offense under coordinator Jake Landry has lived up to its billing as a high-octane scoring machine.
While it may not seem like it, these games have served more purpose than just energizing a program that had fallen on some rough times after three consecutive 3-7 seasons. Certainly that energy helps the team practice and play better, but more tangibly, the blowouts have allowed first-year coach Mike Schmidt to get young players on the field for significant chunks of time.
Starters began calling the sideline home early in the third quarter in both games, so a team for which depth has been an issue has been able to get its freshmen and sophomores — third- and fourth-stringers on the depth chart — minutes against a real opponent.
“It’s huge,” Schmidt said of getting young players in the game. “That’s why we coach even harder in those later moments, because you don’t know when their turn is coming up. I’ve been on teams here where the fifth-string running back becomes the first string.
“Any kind of experience we can get for this year, or even next year, is big for any of those guys who aren’t in the two-deep and wouldn’t normally play.”
Examples from Saturday’s game include running backs Trenten Smith and Cal Mazur.
Both are freshman running backs who are behind four other players for positions in the backfield. But late in the Ripon blowout, they were on the field getting their first collegiate carries, and with good results. Smith finished with 28 yards on five carries, and Mazur had three runs for 14 yards, including a 3-yard TD plunge that capped a backups-led, 12-play drive.
“It’s awesome to get them time. If we can get them in, it’s great,” senior running back Tyler Jenkins said. “I remember when I was younger not being able to get those opportunities, wishing and waiting for something like that to happen. It’s an awesome opportunity for those guys.
“They have to be ready, because who knows what can happen with injuries or whatever it is, so to get them reps is great.”
For an offensive line that has had its troubles in recent season opening up running lanes, the chance to do so for multiple backs who each bring their own attributes is important.
“It feels fantastic,” senior center Ellis Johnson said. “I love to be able to give a hole to anybody so anybody can get in there and score a touchdown.”
Through two games, five players have scored rushing touchdowns for UW-L.
The Eagles have their bye week this week before finishing their nonconference slate at Carroll on Sept. 24. They’ll then begin WIAC play against River Falls on Oct. 1.
If it continues to pound the running game with its stable of backs, and continues the solid run defense its shown against two triple-option offenses, UW-L has a chance to be 4-0 for the first time since 2009.
So say what you will, but your shade won’t knock the Eagles off their stride.
“We’re so happy right now. There’s so much positive energy flowing around,” Jenkins said. “It’s making everything easier for us when we go face our next opponent when we have this confidence now.”