EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (blugolds.com) - With nine of 11 starters back from an offense that averaged 26 points and 412 yards per game, there was no doubt that the 2001 UW-Eau Claire football team would be able to move the ball and score points. However, if the Blugolds were to better their 6-4 record from the previous year, significant improvement would have to take place on the defensive side of the ball.
Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opponents were not confident it could happen--the Blugolds were picked sixth in a preseason conference poll. That did not deter third-year head coach Todd Hoffner and defensive coordinator Todd Glaser. Nor did a highly-difficult schedule.
The Blugold staff and players rose to the challenge and produced a season record (8-2) that will rank among the top eight in the 83-year history of Blugold football. Comparisons will be made to the 1956 (7-1), 1963 (7-0), 1964 (7-2), 1978 (8-2), 1981 (9-1), 1983 (8-2) and 1998 (10-3) teams. With the same rules in effect as just a decade ago, the Blugolds would have finished 8-0-2 since both losses occurred in double overtime based on a fairly new tiebreaker rule.
The Blugolds also annexed just their ninth conference championship, a noteworthy feat considering that only three games separated the first and last-place teams in the extremely competitive eight-team league.
A few statistics show the marked defensive turnaround which made the Blugolds a more consistent team this year. After giving up 23.8 points and 385.1 yards per game in 2000, the 2001 defensive unit held opponents to 15.2 points per game and 318.0 yards per game, the first and second best season averages in the league in those categories. While the offense had 24 turnovers just as in 2000, the defense forced 28 opponent turnovers compared to 21 last year.
The defense’s pass efficiency rating dropped from 103.10 to 94.29, the best in the league while the offensive pass efficiency improved from 108.93 to 129.56, also tops among WIAC teams.
There was one other critical difference—the Blugolds did not have to play catch-up this year. Instead, they took charge of games from the git-go. In the 2000 season, the Blugolds were outscored 79-38 in the first quarter. This year, the defense did not allow a first-quarter score until the final game of the season and the Blugolds showed a 70-7 scoring advantage in the first quarter for the year. The scoring margin in the other three quarters was strikingly similar to the previous year.
Offensively, the Blugolds were more efficient this year, producing 28.0 points per game with just 361.9 yards of offense per game.
The team may have gained an abundance of confidence in its season opener. Despite playing without two-year All-Conference running back Darrell Souhrada, the Blugolds went in to Collegeville, Minnesota and stunned defending NCAA Division III runner-up St. John’s by a 25-10 score—only the sixth loss in the last 70 home games for the Johnnies who went on to gain a spot in the NCAA playoffs again. The defense proved right away that it would make a difference this season, holding St. John’s to just nine yards rushing and 267 total yards. The Johnnies were the first of five teams the defense would limit to less than 300 yards total offense.
Another MIAC opponent would become the defense’s second victim as the Blugolds pounded Augsburg, 37-14. The Blugolds had a 430-188 edge in total yards and rang up six sacks with Augsburg scoring two consolation TDs in the final seven minutes of the contest.
It was the defense that allowed the Blugolds to survive five first half turnovers and a 3-0 halftime deficit to win their third game, this one against Division IAA Valparaiso University on the road. A gutsy fourth-down play near midfield early in the third quarter sparked the Blugolds to their first score and a string of 31 straight points.
Souhrada, who had set the school single season rushing record with 1,588 yards in 2000, finally returned for the conference opener against Oshkosh and did not disappoint as he gained 173 yards on 26 carries in leading the team to a 40-26 road win.
Playing on the road for the fourth time in five games, the Blugolds saw their win streak end in a double overtime loss at UW-River Falls as the Falcons blocked a Blugold extra point in the second overtime after blocking a field goal during regulation. The defense kept the ‘Golds in the game again. After giving up 65 points and 788 yards to the Falcons the previous year, the Blugolds allowed just 14 points in regulation and 294 total yards for the game while forcing 10 punts. Luck was on the Falcons’ side as a 40-yard field goal in the first OT hit the upright and went through.
The Blugolds needed to bounce back from the loss the next week against defending conference champion UW-Stout. The Blugolds made all the big plays in a game played in a downpour that turned Carson Park into a quagmire. The Blugolds scored on the first offensive play of the game and the defense came up with five turnovers. The biggest play of the game came early in the second quarter with the Blugolds holding a 14-0 lead and Stout driving into the red zone. Brad Gawronski forced a fumble which Jay Hoyord picked up and returned 78 yards for a score and a 21-0 lead.
Defense was the name of the game the next week as well as the Blugolds forced six turnovers against a Platteville team that finished as the league’s total offense leader. Late in the game, the defense had interceptions on back-to-back Platteville possessions that sealed the win.
Giving up 470 yards might not seem like much of a defensive effort, but it was the red zone defense that made the difference in a 31-18 road win at Whitewater. The Warhawks penetrated Blugold territory nine times in 12 possessions but scored on only three of seven chances inside the Eau Claire 25. The turning point of the game came in the final minute of the first half. With the Blugolds holding a 14-0 lead, Whitewater marched 58 yards and scored a field goal. Instead of running out the clock, the Blugolds went 63 yards in four plays without the benefit of a timeout and took a 21-3 lead at intermission.
The Blugolds clinched a share of the conference title on an unusually warm and sunny November afternoon before a regional television audience at Carson Park. No freshman could have been placed in any greater pressure situation than was Nels Fredrickson. Replacing quarterback Brian Rasmussen who did not dress because of an MCL sprain, Fredrickson played with the poise and coolness of a seasoned veteran in directing the Blugold offense. His seven-yard scramble gave the Blugolds a 7-0 first quarter lead. Veteran Darrell Souhrada took over the game in the fourth quarter. Having been held to just 58 yards through three quarters, Sourhada exploded for 125 yards in the fourth quarter to finish with a season-high 178 yards. He set up Nick Diciaula’s 22-yard game-winning field goal with 6:13 remaining, then helped the Blugolds control the ball and run the clock down on their next possession.
An outright conference championship and automatic NCAA playoff spot slipped away from the Blugolds in the season finale when they let a 20-10 third-quarter lead vanish and then dropped a 30-27 decision to conference co-champion Stevens Point in double overtime. Big Mo got away from the Blugolds when they were stopped on downs at the Pointer 26 with a 20-10 lead. Then the Pointers marched the length of the field for a score that cut the deficit to three and allowed them to tie the game on a field goal with 3:54 left in regulation.
Despite missing the first three games, Souhrada firmly etched his name in the school and conference record books. He broke Lee Weigel’s career rushing record when he totaled 1,048 yards for the season to push his four-year total to 4,373 yards. He also eclipsed Weigel’s conference career rushing mark and Ted Pretasky’s (La Crosse) conference career TD and scoring records.
Conference coaches recognized the outstanding effort of the Blugolds by naming seven players to the All-Conference first team and three more to the second team. Souhrada, offensive lineman Bob Schmidt and defensive back Jay Hoyord were all unanimous picks. Souhrada was named the co-player of the year and Schmidt was named the co-Scholar Athlete winner. Hoyord was also selected to play in the Aztec Bowl, a Division III All-Star game.