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Mike Schmidt has talked often during his time as the UW-La Crosse football coach about playing November games that matter.

This season and last season, the Eagles have met that goal. Saturday’s contest at Eau Claire represents a chance for La Crosse (6-3, 4-2) to take second place in the WIAC outright, which would be the team’s best finish in the conference since 2006.

A win would also keep the Eagles’ marginal chances at a NCAA Division III playoff berth alive, although they need a good deal of help around the country to have a real shot at an at-large bid.

Either way, the Eagles won’t be short on motivation for their 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Carson Park. And they won’t overlook the Blugolds (4-5, 2-4), who have upset Platteville on the road and Oshkosh at home over the past three weeks.

“Eau Claire made a tremendous turnaround from last year. From being the worst team in our conference to really being a competitor this year,” UW-L senior linebacker Elijah McGeehan said. “We love that. We enjoy playing really good teams on a weekly basis.”

Eau Claire’s offense has improved in recent weeks by holding onto the ball for extended drives. Against the Titans, the Blugolds had the ball for more than 41 minutes, and churned out 20 first downs on one of the conference’s toughest defenses.

La Crosse’s defense has been strong on third downs, though, allowing 21 of 56 (37.5 percent) over the past three weeks. Stopping Eau Claire drives and forcing them to convert longer third downs will be crucial for the Eagles Saturday.

“It’s about getting off the field as quick as we can and getting the ball back to our offense and give them as many opportunities as we can,” said sophomore linebacker Rusty Murphy, who’s second on the team with 56 tackles.

UW-L will have to slow down the rushing game of Brian Kulaga, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior running back who has been a load to tackle this season. The defense also has to be smart against quarterback Scott Procter, who has been efficient in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the league in time of possession. We’re the last. We can’t have that, because if you just let momentum stay on their side and have turnovers and just waste possessions, you’re done,” Schmidt said.

On offense, the Eagles must focus on protecting senior quarterback Ben Schramski. UW-L is a pass-heavy team, and the Blugolds lead the WIAC with 37 sacks this year. La Crosse has done a fairly good job of keeping Schramski off the ground, allowing 18 sacks, but Schramski has also avoided a good deal of sacks by scrambling.

Eau Claire junior linebacker Sam Romanski leads the WIAC and is second in D-III with 13 total sacks.

“I don’t know if we have to know exactly where he is all the time, it’s making sure we play as hard as he plays,” Schmidt said of Romanski. “You have to play through the whistle, because he has such a nose for the football.”

Schmidt said his team can help Schramski against the rush by doing well enough on first and second downs to avoid obvious passing situations, and also by staying flexible offensively.

“You’ve got to be multiple. If they know what you’re in, and can tee off on you and get what they want up, then that’s to their advantage. But if you’re multiple and can keep them guessing, keep them a little bit off-kilter on what you’re running — with tempo, formation variation, motion — that’s to our benefit,” Schmidt said.

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Colten Bartholomew can be reached at colten.bartholomew@lee.net and on Twitter @cbartdizzle.

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Colten Bartholomew is a reporter and columnist for River Valley Media Group. Colten is the college sports coordinator for the La Crosse Tribune.

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