Rusty Murphy thinks the front seven of the UW-La Crosse football team’s defense might have been, as he put it, uptight during the Eagles’ nonconference slate.
The senior middle linebacker believes he and his teammates were so eager to get back on the field after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2019 season that they were focused on not making mistakes instead of simply making plays.
But as UW-L — which is 2-1 and ranked 20th in Division III by the AFCA — exits its bye week and prepares for its WIAC opener at UW-River Falls on Saturday, Murphy says the defense has those jitters out.
“I think it’s just time to let the front seven kind of loose,” he said. “... I think having the first three games and the bye week, now we’re really settled in. We’re getting a lot of practice reps, we’re moving really fast in practice. I think we’re going to be OK up front.”
After giving up 534 yards, including 320 on the ground, in a 45-24 loss at Division II Grand Valley State (Mich.) in Week 3, that will be important against the Falcons — who are scoring 55 points per game, are 3-0 for the first time since 1996 and were among teams that received votes in this week’s poll.
“I think for us, it’s just limit the big plays,” Murphy said. “Get them off balance, get them into the second-and-long, third-and-long situations. Force them to throw it deep, that kind of thing.
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“They’ve got some explosive players. They’ve got some really good guys on the outside. They’ve got a really good running back that we’ll have to take care of. Just limiting those big plays is our big thing.”
The Eagles struggled to do so against GVSU — they allowed a 65-yard touchdown pass and a 69-yard gain on a read option keeper, for example — and UW-River Falls, as Murphy said, has plenty of talent.
Senior quarterback Kole Hinrichsen has completed nearly 68% of his passes for 806 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 325-yard, four-touchdown effort when the Falcons set a school record for points in a 71-13 victory over Northwestern (Minn.) on Sept. 18.
Junior wide receiver Andy Groebner (nine catches, 212 yards, five TDs) has been one of Hinrichsen’s primary targets, and UW-L head coach Matt Janus has been impressed by senior running back Luke Fugate, who has 36 carries for 325 yards and four touchdowns.
“What sticks out to me is their running back. He’s a good player,” Janus said. “He is good, he’s shifty, he’s quick, he’s tough. He’s a really impressive back.”
The Eagles will also need to be prepared for the Falcons’ up-tempo offense.
“They’re going to be no huddle, so we’re trying to prepare for that portion of it. How do we get to the line? How do we get the calls in? All that stuff,” Janus said. “And then we’ve got to shut down their RPO game.”
“They’ve always had really kind of sneaky plays, where they scheme really well to the defense they are going to play,” Murphy added. “They do a good job of kind of switching things up. They don’t just run one or two things really well. They kind of do a really good job at running a wide variety of stuff.”
GROUND GAME HOPING TO GET BACK ON TRACK: The Eagles boasted a 100-yard rusher in Weeks 1 and 2 as junior running back Joey Stutzman found holes created by the offensive line.
But UW-L barely eclipsed 100 rushing yards as a team against GVSU in Week 3, and UW-River Falls has yet to allow 100 yards on the ground in a game.
“River Falls is really big on the interior. They’re big at some of the linebacker positions,” Janus said. “They’re going to be physical, they’re going to play fast, so we know that we’ve got a big game up front with them.”
Junior center Alex Bongers believes the Eagles will be up to the task after returning to the fundamentals over the bye week.
“I think the biggest thing is sticking to our technique because you could see, especially when you’re playing high level players like that (at GVSU), if you get away from your technique, you lose. And if you do it, you win,” Bongers said.
After embracing that reflection, Bongers believes the line will once again open up holes for Stutzman, senior Brad Tobin and others.
“For us, as a group, we feel like we should be able to dominate this game,” Bongers said. “I mean, they’ve got some size up front, but I don’t think they’re anything even close to what we faced in Week 3 in GVSU.”
AROUND THE WIAC: UW-Whitewater, which is ranked third and received three first-place votes in this week’s poll, hosts UW-Stout, which is receiving votes. Both teams are 3-0, and the Warhawks have allowed only 28 points through three games, which is the fewest points allowed in the conference.
UW-Oshkosh, which is 2-0 and ranked sixth, plays at UW-Platteville, which is 1-2. UW-Eau Claire plays at UW-Stevens Point in a battle of 2-1 teams.
Eric Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ByEricLee