When Jakob Parks looked at crossing patterns over the middle of the field in the second half, good things happened for the UW-La Crosse football team.
First it was senior wide receiver Jake Simuncak finding soft spots against UW-Oshkosh’s zone defense, then senior Matthijs Enters, then Simuncak again.
Each time the quarterback completed a pass, the momentum started to build for an offense that mustered only seven points in the first half.
And once that offense found its groove, it was difficult to stop.
After trailing by 14 points at the break, the No. 20 Eagles scored 23 unanswered points en route to a 30-21 victory over the No. 6 Titans on Saturday at Roger Harring Stadium at the Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex.
"It's a statement win for our program, especially after all that's happened with a coaching change, COVID," said senior linebacker Rusty Murphy, who helped the defense limit UW-Oshkosh to 74 yards in the second half. "I think this just validates that this program is still on the up and up no matter what anybody thinks."
"We've got some big games (coming up), but we needed it," UW-L head coach Matt Janus said of the win. "It's massive."
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Parks didn’t have a touchdown but completed 16 of his 23 passes for 188 yards, including 134 in the second half. That in turn opened up the ground game that UW-L showed commitment to in the first half.
The Eagles (4-1, 2-0 WIAC) finished with 218 rushing yards on 46 carries, led by junior running back Joey Stutzman’s 32 carries for 156 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those scores came in the second half as UW-L mounted its comeback.
After the teams traded empty possessions to start the third quarter — both of which ended with stops on fourth-and-1 — Parks started to hit those crossing routes.
The quarterback completed two passes to Simuncak on digs, first for 9 yards and then for 26 after the wideout slipped a tackle and bounced off another.
"We knew that they wouldn't exchange much, and then if they were in man that they would open up," Parks said. "... We took what they gave us. We didn't force anything. We did what were were supposed to and got the job done."
That set up a 12-yard touchdown run by Stutzman, who went off the left edge and made a defender miss by faking back inside, and UW-L pulled within 21-14 with 7 minutes, 32 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Eagles’ defense held firm after the Titans (3-1, 1-1) moved across midfield on the ensuing possession and forced a punt, and Parks continued to utilize the middle of the field.
He found Enters for 17 and 27 yards before Simuncak hauled in another catch and evaded would-be tacklers for a 21-yard gain.
"Every time I was just like, 'Just hold on to the ball.' He just made plays," Parks said of Simuncak, who finished with 10 catches for 112 yards. "I mean, everybody made plays. (Junior wide receiver) Cam (Sorenson), I think they tried to double him all game, and them doing that helped us out. Everybody got open."
Senior running back Brad Tobin followed with back-to-back carries, including a 4-yard touchdown run that appeared to set UW-L up to tie the game. But senior Ryan Beirne’s PAT was blocked, leaving the Eagles’ deficit at 21-20 with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
But the defense allowed only 25 yards over UW-Oshkosh’s next two possessions, forcing the Titans into second- and third-and-long after they frequently had manageable down and distances in the first half.
The offense, meanwhile, continued to move the ball effectively.
On UW-L’s next drive, Parks connected again with Enters and Simuncak before scrambling for a 9-yard gain to convert a third-and-6. The drive ultimately stalled inside the Titans’ 10, but Beirne made a 20-yard field goal to give the Eagles a 23-21 lead with 5:47 to play.
UW-Oshkosh went for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 34 on the ensuing possession, but Murphy stopped Kobe Berghammer on a quarterback keeper.
"I kind of knew where it was going," Murphy said. "The quarterback was staring down the gap right in front of me. Snuck through and just kind of blacked out. Woke up, and everyone was going nuts.
"That's where I get really emotional about football, those are the plays that I love to make. Love that my coaches put me in the positions to make those plays. Feels really good."
UW-L then turned to Stutzman, who ripped off runs of 7, 14 and 19 to take the Eagles into the red zone.
Tobin followed with a 10-yard gain before Stutzman all but sealed the win with a 1-yard TD run with 1:37 left.
"It's great coaching in the beginning, then you look at the second half, it's good execution," Stutzman said. "Starts from our O-line. I mean, give the guys credit. They played their butts off, and that's what happens. When they play good, our offense is successful."
UW-L’s defense finished the victory with another stop on fourth down to keep the Titans off the board after they scored 21 in the first half.
UW-Oshkosh was balanced on the game’s opening drive, with Berghammer moving the Titans into UW-L territory through the air before the team turned to the ground. Running back Peter MacCudden and Berghammer traded carries until Berghammer scored on a QB sneak.
The Eagles answered with a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive.
A 17-yard pass from Parks to Simuncak converted a third down, and a 27-yard rush by Stutzman took UW-L into the red zone. The Eagles stayed on the ground for the rest of the drive, and Stutzman punched it in from 3 yards out to tie the game at 7-7 with 4:39 left in the first quarter.
UW-L remained committed to running the ball for the rest of the first half but came up empty on its next three drives.
A false start and a sack halted the Eagles’ momentum on their next possession, and a hold put them behind the chains on the following drive.
UW-L drove the ball into UW-Oshkosh territory late in the second quarter, but Stutzman was stopped for a loss on fourth-and-one to give the ball back to the Titans.
"Honestly, I was just mad that we went for it on fourth down twice, right, and we didn't get it," Stutzman said. "That's something big that we have to change and really work on. And that's honestly not on our blocking. That's all on me."
UW-Oshkosh, meanwhile, turned to its passing game to build a 14-point halftime lead.
Berghammer completed seven passes on a 90-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 3-yard run by Mac Winkler, and the quarterback hit receivers down the sideline for gains of 34 and 36 yards on the Titans’ next possession.
The latter of those went to Stephan Flores for a touchdown that pushed the Eagles’ deficit to 21-7 with 3:21 left in the second quarter, which held until the break.
But UW-L was able to flip the script in the second half for an impressive win, one that the Eagles hope gives them momentum for the rest of the season.
"Still got to play our nuts off the next three weeks," Murphy said. "Then we go see the guys in purple (UW-Whitewater) on the east side of the state."
Eric Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ByEricLee