Mike Schmidt scheduled a tougher nonconference schedule for his UW-La Crosse football team because he wanted to test it before entering the WIAC season.
The No. 23 Eagles responded to the challenge last week with a win on the road at nationally ranked Illinois Wesleyan. But La Crosse failed its second test in the home opener at Veterans Memorial Field against NAIA No. 20 Dickinson State on Saturday.
Neither Schmidt nor any of the Eagles had any excuses for the 35-17 loss to the Blue Hawks in front of 2,768 people.
“That’s a butt kicking, they kicked our butts,” Schmidt said. “It wasn’t even close.
“That’s an embarrassing loss, the most embarrassing loss since we have been here.”
UW-L’s downfall started in the third quarter.
It got momentum at the end of the second quarter when senior quarterback Ben Schramski threw a perfect pass on a fly route to junior tight end Cole Spieker and brought La Crosse (2-1) within 14-10 at halftime.
Sophomore Garrett Graf then picked off a pass on Dickinson State’s first play of the second half and gave his team the ball at DSU’s 30-yard line with a chance to take the lead. After converting a fourth down on the ensuing drive, Schramski tried to throw a fade pass to sophomore Dominic Labellarte, but Blue Hawks’ cornerback Lewis Dobitz spun around at the perfect time and picked it off and fell down for a touchback.
“We tried to get a ball up into one of our playmakers’ hands, we felt like we had some good momentum at the time, we tried to take a shot and it didn’t work out in our favor,” Schramski said of the play.
“Even with that play happening, we had plenty of time to make things happen. We just couldn’t string it together.”
DSU (2-1) answered with 21 straight points before the third quarter ended, effectively sealing the game.
UW-L had trouble defending against the run, which was powered by DSU’s large, strong offensive line, which averaged 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds across the board. DSU’s two tight ends (6-3, 235 and 6-7, 255) also created forward movement and gave Blue Hawks’ rushers lanes to the second level.
After softening the Eagles up with the run, Dickinson State’s Hayden Gibson finally connected on some deep pass plays to seal the deal. Gibson hit a long pass up the seam on DSU’s first drive, but missed six deep shots after that heading into the third quarter. After his pick, Gibson was 7-for-9 passing with 136 yards and two touchdowns.
Gibson finished 18-for-28 for 282 yards.
UW-L struggled to get to Gibson with a pass rush, despite bringing pressure on multiple third-down attempts.
“We were having trouble figuring out our fits on things,” said senior safety and team captain Peter Kissling, who had a team-high 17 tackles. “We tried to get it adjusted the best we could, but I think we wore down a little bit. We knew that was going to happen coming into the game, we just have to be tougher than that.”
The defense was on the field for 42 plays in the second half, and it was clear fatigue played a factor toward the end. DSU was 7-for-10 on third downs after halftime.
“We were so bad early on, it was constantly third-and-short, and then when it was third-and-long, if it was 10, we’d give up 11. If it was 12, we’d give up 13,” Schmidt said. “We just couldn’t find a way off the field. You can’t win when your (defense is) constantly on the field.”
Offensively UW-L never found consistency with its running game. After averaging 182 yards on the ground through two games, La Crosse gained 79 on 2.8 yards per carry Saturday. Granted, the score for most of the second half dictated throwing, but the team only had 43 yards on 19 tries with the score closer in the first half.
Schramski was also under pressure for much of the afternoon. He was sacked twice — one of which resulted in a fumble recovered by DSU — and took big hits on a number of other throws. He finished 18-for-36 for 219 yards with two interceptions.
“We had some good plays at times, strung some things together, but then we’d fall on our face,” Schramski said. “Little things, little details across the board. … A bunch of little things added up today, and they got the best of us.”