From his opening press conference in January 2016, it was clear what the blueprint for success on the field was going to look like for coach Dan Larson: Establishing the ground game on offense and creating plays defensively.
In the first game of year three, the Blugolds put Larson’s vision on display in Dubuque, Iowa, routing Loras 45-13 on Saturday.
In the game, UW-Eau Claire rushed for 257 yards, the most ever in a game in the Larson era. And on the flip side, the Blugolds allowed the Duhawks just 208 yards of total offense, the least amount given up under Larson.
The team had a different attitude about it in spring ball and the offseason. Things look like they are starting to take shape of the plans laid out years ago.
“Saturday, the thing I liked is that we set a tone early, and our guys didn’t back down for the majority of the game,” Larson said.
If all goes according to plan, the formula comes together when all three phases of the game compliment one another.
On Saturday, all the dominoes fell in a row.
Even though the Blugolds were stopped inside the 5 on their opening drive, they gave the defense opportunistic room to operate and allow for a few more risks jumping pass routes.
That risk turned to reward as Alex Mashak returned a pick-6 20 yards for a touchdown. He disguised himself in coverage and scored the team’s first defensive touchdown in eight years. That’s no typo. Eight years.
“It was really nice to get a bunch of turnovers, because it helped the offense out and we kept feeding off each other,” Mashak said.
The Blugolds also recovered a pair of fumbles.
UW-Eau Claire got a pass rush and disrupted the prolific Loras passing game — which averaged over 300 yards per game a year ago.
The Blugolds have emphasized pursuit over the years and getting a lot of bodies to the football.
That mentality prevented big plays on Saturday. The longest play the Duhawks had from scrimmage was 19 yards.
“Sometimes when quarterbacks aren’t very accurate on throws, it’s because of what they went through before that,” Larson said. “Pressures, taking some hits and some of those types of things early. I thought the one thing with our defense was we had a pursuit and getting a lot of guys to the football.”
The offense was also able to keep the defense fresh and off the field thanks to controlling the line of scrimmage. UW-Eau Claire had the ball for 34 minutes, 21 seconds. Loras was on the field nearly nine minutes less.
Brian Kulaga, Conrad Bolz, Gerald Childs and quarterback Scott Procter all had rushing touchdowns, while 11 different players carried the ball at least once.
“It makes everybody’s job easy so it’s not just one guy carrying the load,” Kulaga said. “It just kind of gives everyone confidence because we are able to feed off each other.”
To put a bow on top, punter Brad Goetsch averaged nearly 40 yards per punt and put two of his four inside the 20-yard line. He also converted all six extra points and booted a 26-yard field goal.
Saturday was one of the first times in the last half decade all three phases executed well and fed off one another. It’s the kind of game Larson, busy prepping for St. Norbert on Saturday, told everybody he wanted to build toward when he took over a winless team following the 2015 season. Folks got a glimpse of what that vision looks like.
Now it’s about stacking those efforts on top of one another. The Blugolds get their first crack at that against the Green Knights under the Carson Park lights at 6 p.m. on Saturday night.