The 16 seniors who will play their final collegiate football games on Saturday afternoon for UW-Eau Claire have worn the bruises.
They won a combined total of three games their first three years on campus, went through a coaching change early in their careers and kept having to hear about how the program was in the early stages of a rebuild in a notoriously strong conference.
Yet here they are, two days away from the final game of the 2018 season with a shot at a .500 record. This is due to program-altering wins over perennial NCAA tournament squads UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh in the last two weeks.
No, this class won’t be on the field when coach Dan Larson’s vision of the program has had all the time it needs to come through and be hopefully in a position to compete for league titles and tournament berths.
But these guys have laid the foundation for those future teams that carry this thing to the hopeful finish line.
“Where we are now, we have an opportunity to get to .500 on Saturday, which is something probably not a lot of people thought was possible after the way that we started our conference season,” Larson said. “But I think it’s a huge sign of what this senior class is about, what they’ve meant to this program and how they’ve kept it together.”
The Blugolds will get that chance against UW-La Crosse and will play to a regional audience on ABC. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at Carson Park.
It’s always hard, Larson said, to ask guys to put in a lot of work where there are no guarantees as to how things are going to go.
And for much of their college careers, these seniors have had that a cloud of uncertainty hovering over them. Are we moving forward as a program? Will we catch some of these teams in our conference?
Those questions have all been answered with a big leap forward this season, starting out the year 2-0 before knocking off UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh late in the season.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster,” senior running back Brian Kulaga said. “The first couple of years were not great obviously. It’s really a testament to all the seniors and all the guys in the program of not giving up and continuing to work hard and keep pushing and finally starting to have some success. Kind of on the upswing of the roller-coaster now, which is great.”
The Blugolds have looked the part for much of the year too.
They are averaging 20.2 points per game to their opponent’s 17.8. They are averaging 310.8 yards per game to their opponent’s 315.5. It’s a night-and-day difference from even last year, when the squad put up just 10 points per game.
On Saturday against UW-Oshkosh, a 20-14 victory, the Blugolds owned the advantage in virtually every statistical category and had the ball on offense for 41 minutes of game time, eventually wearing down the Titans defense.
That kind of style has been the blueprint Larson has laid out as a way to success.
While the win last Saturday won’t propel this team into the postseason, it was a good standard to set for future teams on how to beat good teams late in the year.
“Really though, in playing in this type of climate and if you want to be playing meaningful games in November — and hopefully sometime in our program we will playing meaningful games at the end of November and December — you have to be able to run the ball,” Larson said. “In our conference, if you can do that on a consistent basis, you’re going to have an opportunity to win.”
UW-Eau Claire will get one last shot to do that against an Eagles team coming off a convincing win over UW-River Falls and that has made its own significant jump following a coaching change two years ago.
For the Blugolds, Saturday is almost as much for 2019 as it is 2018. This group of Blugolds has shown it is possible to win at this institution. Finishing strong this season would be another way to push some momentum into the next year in terms of offseason workouts as well as recruiting.
“I think the big thing from a recruiting standpoint is that we’ve had to sit and talk to some recruits about our vision and that we are building something,” Larson said. “I think what this shows is that we are making strides and doing things the right way.”
While the Blugolds indeed want to use Saturday as a springboard for future teams, it’s only right this group of seniors gets its dues.
These 16 guys have played a crucial role in digging the program back on the upswing.
While they won’t be around to see it through, they’ll leave knowing they were the ones who got things going off the starting block. The baton has just now been passed.
“I hope they take away the hard work aspect from us and not giving up,” Kulaga said. “If guys in this program continue to emulate that, they’ll reap the benefits.”