The UW-La Crosse defense — outside of a few plays — turned in an impressive outing in the team’s season-opening victory over Luther on Saturday night.
The Eagles’ defense was able to keep Luther’s triple-option offense in check, for the most part. The Norse gained 280 yards on 50 carries, but UW-L had five tackles for loss — including two sacks — forced four fumbles and had an interception. For a defense that has spent much of its offseason focused on slowing down opponents’ rushing attacks, it was a welcome start.
“I saw a lot of compete tonight. We never gave in, we never gave up. I’m so proud of that group, the front seven and our DB group,” said senior safety and team captain Ryan Weber, a Holmen High School graduate who tallied six tackles.
Senior linebacker Nick Peters shined while attacking the Norse’s scheme, recording a team-best nine tackles. Fellow seniors Michael Garvey (seven tackles) and Josh Neary (six) also stepped up for the Eagles. The unit was especially impressive on third and fourth downs. Luther went 6 of 14 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth, including twice in the red zone.
“That just shows the compete level of our group,” Weber said.
Neary had an interception in the first half, but was targeted on Luther’s only touchdown — a 4-yard in-cutting route to 6-foot-5 receiver Justin Montgomery — in the second. But Neary responded on the next series, forcing incompletions with tight coverage on two of the three plays before Luther punted.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Saturday was the first time Schmidt hadn’t been the defensive coordinator for his team since 2011.
He was “pretty involved” with defensive coordinator Matt Janus and the adjustments the Eagles made throughout the game, he said. But where he did get to direct the action was on special teams, and UW-L responded in a big way.
Senior receiver and return man Ryan Kruser was tripped up by Luther kicker Cory Wirth to stop what was almost a kickoff return score on the opening kick, and he saved the Eagles crucial yards with his punt returns.
UW-L made both of its field-goal attempts, a 28-yard try in the second quarter by sophomore Michael Pakos and then a 32-yard kick by freshman Bryce Wesling in the third. The battle for the kicker spot was an intense one during training camp, and it doesn’t look to be calming down now.
Freshman punter Sean Parker also had a big day in his college debut, averaging 35 yards per punt and pinning two of his five kicks inside the 20.
INJURIES: UW-L starting running back and sophomore Jalen Clark was injured in the first quarter, and did not return to the game. He was wearing a sling as soon as the Eagles’ training staff got him to the sideline, and he is going to get x-rays, Schmidt said, to examine his elbow this week.
Schmidt said if the x-ray reveals a break, Clark could miss the rest of the season.
Senior cornerback Steve Law made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 59-yard run by Luther’s Anthony Hollingshed, but tweaked a hamstring injury that has bothered him throughout the preseason.
“We’ve got to get guys healthy. We’re really banged up after this one,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got to get healthy to get ready for Ripon.”