Right after the clock hit zero on Oct. 28, it may have been hard for UW-Eau Claire football coach Dan Larson to find light at the end of the tunnel.
His team had just fallen flat at home in a 55-7 loss to UW-Stout. And the Blugolds had two straight road games at UW-Oshkosh and UW-Whitewater to close out his second season as head coach. There was one tally on the left-hand side of the win-loss column as opposed to seven on the other side.
The minutes passed and turned into Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, when Larson and company took the field for the week’s toughest practice. How would his guys respond going in to face two of the toughest opponents in the country?
He got his answer shortly after the first whistle, which carried into those final two games.
“I thought the way that our guys came out and competed those two weekends ... we didn’t win but the way they came out and competed and came out and prepared, I thought we were really ready to start taking that next step,” Larson said Monday at the team’s Media Day at Davies Center.
Even though those games resulted in losses — 42-7 to UW-Oshkosh and 36-3 to UW-Whitewater — the Blugolds made the national powerhouses work for their points. Those efforts showed Larson and his staff that the team was ready for a busy offseason workload and ready to switch the verbiage up across the program.
From there on out, the Blugolds have started to use the word “winning.” It’s become an expectation for this program, which has just four wins in the last four seasons, to start reversing its fortunes.
The first two years in the Larson tenure were about setting the groundwork and establishing a culture. Now, it’s time for the next step.
“I think at some point, you’ve got to stand up,” athletic director Dan Schumacher said. “And I think we’re at that point as a program to be able to stand up now. It’s time. And that doesn’t mean I’m expecting Dan to go out and win the WIAC this year. But I expect us to be very competitive and be in ball games because of what’s been built. And there is a different vibe.”
Larson said the team has “earned the right to use the word ‘win.’”
So what’s that looked like?
The competition has increased in practice, for starters. Even in the weight room, guys are having battles with each other on repetitions and ability. The first parts of the rebuild were all about learning the fine points of what it takes to be a successful college football program. This offseason, it’s been about mastering them.
“It’s creating that mentality in everything we do,” senior Drew Hurley said. “Winning in the film room, winning at keeping the locker room clean. Winning at all those little things that allow us to win on the field.”
It’s the most optimistic the team has been since Larson took the reins three years ago.
Part of it has to do with retention. Schumacher said between 60 to 80 percent of the players stayed in the program this year, as opposed to 20 to 30 in seasons past. And of that bunch, nearly 50 percent stayed in Eau Claire this summer and worked out together.
Part of UW-Eau Claire’s shortcomings the last couple of seasons has been the physical mismatch with opponents. With the retention rate being lower than this year, the Blugolds were forced to play freshmen and sophomores in key spots, certainly not an easy task in the WIAC.
Now, those guys are older with a lot of college snaps already played. Couple that with more time getting bulked up under the strength and conditioning program, and it’s led to more confidence on the field this offseason.
“Our guys have been better conditioned,” Larson said. “Our guys have been able to practice at a faster tempo, and we’ve been able to push a little bit more.”
The players back are now in their third year under Larson’s system. In the first year, much of training camp revolved around learning it. By now, it’s more second nature, and the Blugolds can spend more time honing in on specific details in scheme.
“It just allows you to play faster when you know mentally what’s going on,” quarterback Scott Procter said. “It allows your physical play to improve.
“For example, on a run play receivers knowing their angles and where to block or vice versa on a pass play running backs getting the protection, and obviously the protection up front is a big thing.”
Results won’t speak for themselves until the first game of the year on Sept. 1 at Loras.
The upper echelon of the WIAC is still going to be awfully tough to crack. And the Blugolds are still building to get to that point and may still have a ways to go before knocking on the door of those teams.
But they’ve reached a stage where they expect to compete and win ball games. Before that first kickoff, there aren’t a lot of measuring sticks the outside world can see. That mentality is one of them, though. And for the first time in half a decade, the Blugolds are aiming for something other than just establishing culture.
“Our guys telling us that this is the most amount of buy-in that we’ve had and the most amount of excitement that we’ve had, to me that echoes the words to us that this is the next step we have to take,” Larson said.