Another week means another extremely talented and highly ranked opponent for the UW-La Crosse football team.
The Eagles, coming off back-to-back losses, won’t catch a break today when it heads to No. 9 Platteville for a 1 p.m. WIAC showdown at Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium. That’s the reality of playing in the WIAC — no matter how the schedule breaks, every team faces a gauntlet in those seven conference matchup.
UW-L’s this season has been particularly tough, playing Whitewater — which, while in a “down year” is still one of the most talented teams in NCAA Division III — No. 3 Oshkosh and Platteville (6-1, 3-1 WIAC) in consecutive weeks. Even with what some may call a daunting slate, the Eagles (5-2, 2-2) are ready to play for what would be a statement win.
“It’s fun. When you think you’re the best, you want to play the best,” senior defensive lineman Brandon McKandes said this week. “Every single guy on this field wants to be going against the best teams and the best talent.”
Part of UW-L’s enthusiasm for today’s game is what it still has to play for. It’s a longshot, but if the Eagles win out and the right teams lose key games in other D-III conferences, they still have a shot at the playoffs — something that hasn’t been a reality for UW-L since 2006.
For those aspirations to mean anything, though, the Eagles will have to find a way to slow down Mark Johnson and the Pioneers offense. Johnson, a 5-foot-11 junior receiver out of Johnston, Iowa, has been a spark plug for the Platteville attack.
He posted a 225-yard, two-touchdown performance last week against Eau Claire, and after UW-L’s secondary was beat deep a handful of times against Oshkosh last week, one would expect Johnson to be targeted down the field often.
“Mark Johnson’s sensational,” UW-L coach Mike Schmidt said. “He plays inside, so he’ll be a handful on our safeties and linebackers.”
Schmidt and Eagles’ defensive coordinator Matt Janus, a Platteville alum, know Johnson well. Both coaches were on the Pioneers’ staff in 2015 and watch as Johnson, a freshman on the scout team at the time, beat starting defenders repeatedly in practice.
Johnson (61 catches, 792 yards, seven TDs) and senior Tim Jansen (35-563-7) have helped keep the Platteville offense going after injuries to the offensive line have hurt the run game. The Pioneers average 117 yards on 35.4 carries per game, which equates to 3.3 yards per rush. UW-L will need to continue that trend and force the Pioneers into long passing situations.
Coaches on both sides are familiar with one another, and the teams’ schemes, while having differences, can appear similar. Both offenses spread the field and use the pass to set up the run, while both defenses have been primarily man-to-man coverages.
Translation: There could be lots of big plays in the brisk late-fall weather today.
Sophomore running back Jalen Clark has given the Eagles’ struggling run game a boost, especially in the red zone, but UW-L will have to make plays through the air to pull off the upset. For the Eagles, that has meant finding senior Nick Holcomb.
Holcomb is on pace to break single-season program records in catches, yards and TDs, and has been one of the few constants for an offense that has seen its share of injuries.
Senior quarterback Tarek Yaeggi returned to practice this week after a shoulder injury and is a game-time decision, but junior Drew David has kept the Eagles going in Yaeggi’s absence.
“I’ve never been worried about Drew David playing, not once,” Holcomb said. “The guy’s a legend. He’s really good. We didn’t lose anything with losing Tarek. Obviously we know he’s really good, but so is Drew. He got to show that finally.”
Holcomb, named the conference offensive player of the week on Tuesday, gives Yaeggi, David or whatever quarterback the Eagles play a good target.
“Whenever a ball is thrown his way, you have a great feeling about it, whether it’s a good ball or not a great ball,” David said. “You just have a feeling he’s coming down with it.”