The UW-La Crosse football team’s defense had played about as well as it could through three quarters, but was deadlocked early in the fourth against a UW-Stout team intent on killing the Eagles’ dreams of making the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Once UW-L got the Blue Devils backed up in their own territory, it took the mentality to grab the lead on its own instead of hoping the offense would.
Senior defensive back Luke Winnen stepped in front of a rushed pass, intercepted it, then scooted into the end zone to give the Eagles a lead they wouldn’t give up en route to a 21-7 WIAC victory Saturday in front of 1,575 people on a cold, cloudy day at Veterans Memorial Field.
Winnen’s pick-six was one of many highlights for the Eagles’ defense as it played a key role in helping UW-L move to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the WIAC. The seven wins are the most for the program since the 2006 season.
“I just saw the quarterback scrambling around a bit, our front got great pressure,” Winnen said of how his momentum-swinging interception happened. “I saw the ball release and I was fortunate enough to make a play and get into the end zone.”
The pressure UW-L put on Stout’s duo of quarterbacks — junior Jay Alston and sophomore J. Dan Sturgeon — was unrelenting. The Eagles racked up a season-best seven sacks, and harassed that pair all game. Alston threw three interceptions and Sturgeon tossed the ball that Winnen took to the end zone.
“I’m out superlatives for this group,” UW-L coach Mike Schmidt said after the grind-it-out win. “I don’t know how we won that game. I knew we were in for a great battle, but I didn’t know it was going to be like that.”
The Eagles’ defense made plays throughout the third quarter to buoy the team as the offense tried to get untracked. It made stops after a pair of third-quarter interceptions by Stout, and then received a bit of luck when a 41-yard field goal attempt bounced off the left upright to keep it tied at 7.
After Winnen’s pick put the momentum squarely on UW-L’s sideline, senior linebacker Michael Garvey forced Sturgeon to fumble and Nick Peters recovered. The ensuing drive ended with a blocked field goal, but the defense once again stepped up to force a three-and-out. Junior quarterback Drew David didn’t allow another chance to slip by, hitting senior receiver Nick Holcomb with a 51-yard TD pass to put the game out of reach.
“We were getting frustrated, not executing the way we wanted to,” said David, who completed just 13 of 33 passes for 181 yards. “Our defense kept bailing us out … (The touchdown pass) definitely let out a lot of frustration.”
Stout did the best job of any opponent this season in bracketing Holcomb, and it picked off David three times in a forgettable day for the Eagles’ offense. But Holcomb still shook loose enough times to record five catches for 98 yards, which gave him a school-record 15th receiving TD this year and netted him 1,148 receiving yards, also a school record.
With the two-score lead, UW-L continued to hound the Stout quarterbacks, with seniors Jacob Wudtke and Brandon McKandes notching back-to-back sacks to stymie the Blue Devils’ last good drive.
David went to tight end Cole Spieker with a back-shoulder throw on a first-and-goal on the Eagles’ best drive of the first quarter, but was just a touch off. Spieker went to the wide side of the field the next play and ran the same route, and David’s pass was a picture-perfect dart from 9 yards to get UW-L on the board.
After Alston started the game, Stout switched quarterbacks from the second quarter on, and Sturgeon led the Blue Devils on an eight-play, 58-yard drive to tie it with 9 seconds left in the first half. The Eagles allowed a third-and-20 to be converted on a jump ball on the drive, and then Kevion McDonald hauled in the 20-yard score after beating man coverage in the end zone.
Both teams faltered on a red-zone chance in the first half to keep it 7-7 at halftime.
Stout got down inside the Eagles’ 20 on a long catch and run by McDonald, a play in which McDonald broke multiple tackles en route to gaining 72 yards. But junior cornerback Colton Nieman played perfect man-to-man defense in the end zone, got position on his receiver, and picked off Jay Alston’s pass for a touchback late in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, with La Crosse facing a third-and-5 at the Stout 15-yard line, David tried to force a ball to Holcomb through double coverage. Safety Levi Wolf jumped the route, tipped the ball to himself and caught it for an interception and returned it to the Stout 42. The pick was one of two for Wolf on the day, and set up Stout’s only score.