When he says it, the simplicity of it cuts through the mountain of complication we’ve heaped onto the game of football.
UW-La Crosse quarterback Tarek Yaeggi, speaking moments after the team’s season-opening win last week against Luther College, said his offense needs to stay focused on one thing — getting first downs.
“I think we’ve just got to do a better job of realizing we have to stay on the field, just get as many first downs as possible and give our defense a break,” Yaeggi said. “From there, we’re going to force some missed tackles and get some big plays.”
Today’s game at Ripon College, slated for 1 p.m. at Ripon’s Ingalls Field, is a chance for the Eagles to prove to themselves — and the rest of this season’s opponents — they can in fact churn out first downs.
A key factor in UW-L’s success or failure in that department will be the running game. The Eagles gained 136 yards on 39 carries last week, averaging 3.5 yards per attempt. Outside of junior Mike Santucci’s 23-yard burst on a pitch on in the first quarter, those were all hard-fought yards on totes of less than 10 yards apiece.
Each yard is important to getting the UW-L offense into a rhythm and moving the chains. Last week, the team’s average distance of a third down converted for a first down was 5.2 yards; failed attempts were from an average distance-to-go of 6.5 yards.
The Eagles’ starting running back to start the season, sophomore Jalen Clark, suffered a dislocated elbow on the second series against Luther, just before a lightning delay halted the game for a little more than an hour. Clark, who missed time last year with a broken foot, caught a break in that there are no broken bones in his elbow, allowing him to return this season. UW-L coach Mike Schmidt said Tuesday the timetable for Clark’s return is about four to six weeks — which would be the opening weeks of the WIAC schedule.
Against Luther, Clark showed the explosiveness and burst through the line that won him the starting job, picking up 15 yards on two carries.
“Jalen makes the biggest difference in that run game. When you have a really good running back, he makes the run game a lot better,” Schmidt said. “We need to get Troy Bailey and Mike Santucci and Trent Smith playing at the level Jalen showed on his couple of carries in the first couple series.”
Santucci is on the two-deep this week as the starting running back, with Bailey, a senior, slated as his backup. However, UW-L showed that it will use different running backs with different sets, so the No. 1 delineation isn’t as definitive at that spot as others.
Versatility is a key piece to Santucci’s value as a back. He played running back at Woodstock (Ill.) High School before moving to receiver in college. He was an All-WIAC honorable mention selection in 2015 before an ACL tear in training camp ended his season last year. Santucci’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield adds a new dynamic to UW-L’s attack, but they need him to be a complete back in order to get the offense humming.
Santucci admits there are areas he needs to get better at as a running back. As a receiver and return specialist throughout his Eagles career, Santucci has had the ball with more space around him than he sees now in the trenches.
“It’s a little different,” Santucci said. “There were some plays last Saturday I tried getting outside when I wasn’t supposed to. There’s things I’ve still got to learn, work on my game each week.”
UW-L is also working in four new offensive linemen, and those players need game experience to be able to come together as O-lines must do. That group that could get a boost from the addition of sophomore Oliver Vasanoja, who has been limited through training camp and Week 1 by a bone bruise in his leg. Vasanoja is slated as the backup center on the team’s two-deep roster this week — a step up from last week and a sign his return is coming soon.
If there’s a week for the line and the running backs to show what they can do, this is it — against Ripon’s 3-3 stack front last season, the Eagles amassed 320 yards rushing.