Even without some of its top players suiting up, the UW-La Crosse football team’s defense showed Saturday that it’s ready to lead the way.
Those of the first-string defense that played, forced visiting Dubuque to lose yardage on its first two series and scored a touchdown of its own during a scrimmage at Veterans Memorial Field.
Dubuque’s offensive reserves hit some big plays later in the exhibition and led 31-28 after four quarters. The teams also played a fifth quarter, but neither scored.
UW-L’s defensive starters manhandled the Spartans up front, tallying three tackles for loss in its two drives. Junior Elijah Alt picked off Dubuque’s second pass attempt of the afternoon and returned it 24 yards to put La Crosse on the board first.
“We feel like our front seven will be the strength of the team. We keep saying, ‘Punt the ball and play defense’ might be our best offense,” Eagles coach Mike Schmidt said.
“That’s what we’ve been building for, that’s what we’ve been recruiting for, to have a defense that can win us a championship.”
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Last-season’s sack leader Ryan Flathers and do-it-all linebacker Rusty Murphy weren’t in pads Saturday, neither was senior safety Peter Kissling, back after an injury ended his 2018 season four games in.
UW-L saw some good production out of its top offensive unit despite some of its stars resting as well.
Junior wide receiver Dominic Labellarte hauled in a 24-yard touchdown after getting behind his defender in the south end zone, and sophomore Cam Sorenson ran free up the seam for a score from 36 yards out.
“The adjustment to the new offense was pretty good early on, and that’s a positive,” Schmidt said. “The explosive offense is what we’re going to have to do. But we have to be able to run the football to be able to get in position to take shots like that.”
Senior receiver Cole Spieker, who led the Eagles in catches, yards and TDs last year, didn’t suit up. Neither did Jalen Clark, the team’s top returning running back.
Schmidt said holding some of the team’s top players out of Saturday’s scrimmage allowed for younger players to play a lot of reps and is a sign that the program’s building depth.
“We’re getting to a point where we can treat these like a tune-up, and get a lot of guys looks, as opposed to trying to get your starters ready,” he said. “Some of the starters who were playing it was more that they couldn’t afford a day of because they’ve missed some time.”