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UW-LA CROSSE 45, UW-RIVER FALLS 23

UW-La Crosse football: No. 20 Eagles overpower UW-River Falls to win WIAC opener

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RIVER FALLS — Cam Sorenson had a few steps on his defender down the right sideline, and Jakob Parks put his pass right where it needed to be.

But the ball bounced off the UW-La Crosse junior wide receiver’s hands and fell harmlessly to the turf.

The drop prevented what would have been a long gain at the very least and a touchdown at the most on the Eagles’ opening possession of Saturday’s game at UW-River Falls.

Just one play later, though, the missed opportunity was erased.

Junior running back Joey Stutzman took the handoff straight up the middle on third-and-7, split the Falcons’ defense and went 60 yards untouched to give UW-L a lead less than a minute into its WIAC opener.

Joey Stutzman mug

Stutzman

The 20th-ranked Eagles weren’t perfect on Saturday, but their offense overpowered UW-River Falls for a 45-23 victory.

“I think we came out with a bang, even with some slip-ups early,” UW-L head coach Matt Janus said. “We had some mistakes, and that’s disappointing. But we definitely feel like a lot of them were very fixable as we go on to this week.

“To be able to come out with a bang, especially with an explosive run right off the bat, to kind of be able to push the scoreboard up a little bit, to kind of get them playing from behind, was huge.”

UW-L (3-1, 1-0), which won its conference opener for the first time since 2017, totaled 553 yards and averaged 9.2 yards per play while scoring in each quarter, including a pair of touchdowns in the first and second quarters.

The ground game got back on track after being limited to 106 yards in the team’s Week 3 loss at Division II Grand Valley State (Mich.); Stutzman finished with 17 carries for 154 yards and a touchdown, while senior Brad Tobin added 11 carries for 82 yards and a score.

“We feel like we have, really, three special backs,” Janus said, “because I think (sophomore) Brant Bohman is in that mix, too, where we can go Joey, we can go Brad as a little bit of a changeup — and obviously completely different runners — and then Brant as well.

“So we feel like we’re able to kind of use multiple backs to keep those guys fresh, especially on kind of a humid, kind of a muggy day.”

Parks was intercepted once but was otherwise efficient; he completed 17 of his 26 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to senior wide receiver Jake Simuncak.

Sorenson had a team-high six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, and he, Simuncak and Parks helped give the Eagles a sizable lead early in the second quarter after a key defensive stop.

The Falcons (3-1, 0-1), who were among teams receiving votes in this week’s AFCA poll, put together a solid drive late in the first quarter fueled by a 37-yard pass from senior quarterback Kole Hinrichsen to senior wideout Alex Traxler and had first-and-goal from the UW-L 10.

But a sack by sophomore defensive lineman Jack Anderson pushed UW-River Falls back, and the Eagles stopped senior running back Luke Fugate at the 1 on fourth down.

Tobin gave UW-L some breathing room as the offense took over before Parks completed a pair of passes to Sorenson. And on the first play of the second quarter, Parks hit Simuncak down the middle of the field for a 46-yard gain that gave the Eagles first-and-goal.

Simuncak was called for a hold on a Stutzman run two plays later, but he responded by hauling in a 13-yard touchdown catch that capped the eight-play, 99-yard drive and put UW-L up 21-0 with 13 minutes, 34 seconds left in the second quarter.

Simuncak finished with five catches for 139 yards to go with his three touchdowns.

The Eagles did allow the Falcons to score twice in the second quarter — the first drive was aided by a defensive pass interference penalty and the second followed Parks’ interception — as Hinrichsen and junior wideout Andy Groebner connected for a pair of touchdowns.

UW-L did hold UW-River Falls below its scoring average — the Falcons entered Saturday averaging 55 points per game — but the Eagles allowed 468 yards and had 12 penalties for 141 yards.

Still, UW-River Falls couldn’t stop UW-L’s offense.

Sandwiched between Hinrichsen and Groebner’s touchdowns, Simuncak caught another deep ball over the middle of the field, that one for a 63-yard touchdown.

“We knew the middle of the field was going to be open,” Janus said. “To be able to kind of get some post action, some in breaking routes, some digs with Jake with the middle of the field open, and then once we get the ball into his hands, then it gets pretty magical from there.”

The Eagles led 28-14 at the half, and Simuncak caught his final touchdown on fourth-and-6 from the Falcons’ 9 on UW-L’s first possession of the third quarter. That pushed the Eagles’ advantage to 35-14 with 10:02 left in the third, and UW-L led by at least 18 points for the rest of the game.

“We had a really good first quarter, then it feels like the second quarter we were just kind of stuck in the mud a little bit,” Janus said. “Then to be able to come out in the third and fourth quarter and finish the game was good to see.”

The Eagles are back in action next week when they host No. 6 UW-Oshkosh. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Oct. 9.

Eric Lee can be reached at eric.lee@lee.net or via Twitter @ByEricLee

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Sports reporter

Eric Lee is a sports writer with the La Crosse Tribune. He can be reached at 608-791-8228.

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