By Kyle Naber, UWEC Sports Information
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Blugolds.com)- Looking to turn things around after a tough homecoming loss to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire football team will travel to take on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Saturday afternoon at Dave Smith Stadium.
Last week in front of over 4,500 fans, the Blugolds did not have the start they were looking for. Head Coach Dan Larson did not feel like the early turnover, which set up the first Stevens Point score, was due to early game nerves. He believed that Stevens Point came to play and took advantage of an opportunity early on.
Sophomore running back Brian Kulaga (So. - Riverside, IL) was excited to get out in front of the big crowd. He knew that Stevens Point would come out early and try to establish their identity.
"We knew they were going to come out and try to knock us out with one punch," Kulaga said. "We were ready for it, though."
Despite being down 14-0 early in the game, the Blugolds would start to mount a comeback with a dynamic drive in the second quarter. To get things going, JT Denhartog (So. – Hopkins, MN) found Matt Knapp (Sr. – Eau Claire, WI/Memorial) for a 43-yard gain. Then one play later, Kulaga took it to the house for a 35-yard touchdown run. Kulaga credited his touchdown run to great blocking and doing exactly what the coaches have taught him.
"On my first carry, I stuttered my feet too much," Kulaga said. "On my second carry, I just didn't think about it. I hit the hole hard, found a lot of green and ran to the end zone."
Early in the fourth quarter, the Blugolds would put the pressure on the Pointers when Kulaga found the end zone for the second time. A costly missed extra point would leave the Pointers with a one-point lead. Stevens Point responded to the Blugolds by scoring after a long eight-play drive. The Pointers would keep things rolling by scoring again just a minute later after a two-play, 45-yard drive. However, Eau Claire fought to the last minute, scoring on the game's final play.
Scouting the opponent:
UW-River Falls matches up with Eau Claire in many ways and the first is the teams' records. Both teams will line it up on Saturday with identical 1-3 overall and 0-1 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) records.
Last year's meeting ended in a 10-7 loss for Eau Claire. It was a defensive struggle of the highest degree, but this year the game figures to be much different as there has been a lot of change for both teams. UW-River Falls has a new defensive coordinator, after the departure of current Eau Claire defensive coordinator Matt Ebner. The Falcons also have a new quarterback this season that, like many of the quarterbacks that Eau Claire has seen so far this season, can make an impact on the ground and through the air.
The Blugold defense has excelled at getting off the field on third down as they have only allowed two third down conversions in the last two games. This has translated to the best time of possession in the WIAC. Eau Claire will look to continue to dominate the clock and mix in some of what we saw last week, where the Blugolds scored in a minute or less on every scoring drive.
Both teams should be able to find some success on the ground and through the air, with neither team having a strong advantage in one area. This is a game that could very well be won or lost on the special teams aspect of the game. The Blugolds will look to dynamic return man, Matt Knapp, to set up the Eau Claire offense. The Falcons are currently last in punt yard average, making this the key match-up for the week. However, the Falcons can make plays on special teams too, as they lead the WIAC in kickoff return yard average, meaning the Blugolds will have to find ways to pin them into their own territory.
Keys to the game:
-Come out fast: Eau Claire can struggle a bit to open games and will have to find a way to overcome this for an early game time (12:00 kickoff) in River Falls.
-Continue to be balanced on offense: The Blugolds found success on the ground and through the air early against Stevens Point. They will need to build off this and quarterback JT Denhartog will need to continue to spread the ball around.
-Win on special teams: As mentioned before, this will certainly be a key match-up with both teams having dynamic return men. Eau Claire always wants to be the best special teams unit on the field and they will have to do so this week to win.
-Meet expectations: If Eau Claire wants to start shaking up the WIAC, it starts here. These teams were near even last year and it should be another great WIAC match-up on Saturday.
Follow the action Saturday on Blugold Game Day.