Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-River Falls Athletics
RIVER FALLS, Wis.–There is a heightened confidence around River Falls, Wisconsin this fall.
Matt Walker knows he has a special group of returning upperclassmen on his roster. The Falcons themselves saw how close they came to upsets of nationally-ranked powers a season ago. And in what is shaping up to be a wide-open WIAC title race once again, there is no telling what could be in store for UWRF over the next 11 weeks of the regular season.
“I’ve never been around anything like it,” Walker, who enters his 13th season as UWRF’s head coach, said of coaching in the WIAC. “Without naming names, I would say that there has to be six teams that sincerely think they can win this league this year. And they’re probably all right.”
A group of eight public institutions spread across the state of Wisconsin, the WIAC has become known for its parity and high level of competition. Without D-II any D-II football programs in the state, and just one at the D-I level, D-III football has a special place within Wisconsin’s collegiate sports scene.
“It’s like we’re all connected in the same family, and at the same time, we’re bitter, yet fun rivals,” Walker said. “Everybody’s family and friends have representation at almost every team in the league. It’s a very unique thing about growing up here.”
That in-state talent has helped yield several national powers out of the league, with four WIAC programs beginning 2023 in the D3football.com Top 25.
UWRF, ranked No. 23, is UMHB’s season-opening opponent, as the third-ranked Crusaders travel to River Falls for a 1 p.m. matchup on Sept. 2. Two weeks later, UMHB hosts No. 11 UW-Whitewater, marking the first time The Cru has faced two WIAC opponents in the regular season in the same year.
Sept. 2 will also mark the first time UWRF has ever battled UMHB. But it will not be a new experience for the Falcons when it comes to getting tested by a Top 10 opponent right out of the gate.
A year ago, fourth-ranked Saint John’s hosted UWRF in a Week 2 showdown, one that nearly ended with the Falcons stunning the heavily-favored Johnnies. Saint John’s lead by a narrow 20-19 margin at the half, and even when the Johnnies pulled away in the second half, UWRF responded with 15 fourth-quarter points, cutting the deficit to the eventual 37-34 final score.
Later in the conference schedule, the Falcons nearly shocked WIAC foes UW-Whitewater and UW-La Crosse, who were both ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the games. UWRF fell by a combined 10 points in those two matchups, which were played on the road and in the span of seven days.
“It’s a shoulda, woulda, coulda [type of situation], with a play here or there in all those games last year,” Walker said, noting that all four losses of his team’s last season came by seven points or less, and three were against Top 10 opponents.
But at the same time, it is part of why so much optimism surrounds the UWRF program this fall. Nearly everyone is back, and the majority are part of a star-studded class of players entering their junior years.
Starting quarterback, Kaleb Blaha, returns as one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the WIAC, having led the Falcons in both passing and rushing yards in 2022. Running back Michael Krueger, who scored eight touchdowns out of the backfield, will look to contribute to the offense once again. And in the passing game, Mason Van Zeeland and Luke Kush might be the best receiver duo in the WIAC. The pair combined for 95 catches, 1,350 yards, and 16 touchdowns a season ago.
And that’s just the offense. Defensively, All-American cornerback Michael Brown enters his junior year after tallying a league-best eight interceptions in 2022. Defensive back Dylan Brown, another junior, broke up 11 passes last season, and junior defensive back Aaron Borgerding comes back as the team’s leading tackler.
“I’ve been pretty public and open about the fact that this is a two-year window right now,” Walker said. “With the quarterback [Blaha] having two years, and that unique secondary all having two years. A lot of our production in other spots has two years left.
“There’s some key seniors in there too, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great senior class, with Alex Klecker at tackle, and Drew Hahn on defense. But we’re not letting a secret out of the bag. It’s a two-year opportunity with some very unique production. The chips are all in right now to see what we can do with this group.”
One of the defining characteristics of UWRF’s success under Walker’s leadership has been the fast-paced style of offense that produced a WIAC-best 39.1 points per game in 2022. The top passing offense in the league, opponents struggled defensively as UWRF took advantage of its possessions. UWRF had the most first downs per game of anyone in the league (25.2/game), and Blaha’s 2,488 passing yards were the most amongst WIAC quarterbacks.
“It has sure come together,” Walker said of the offensive style his team runs. “It takes a lot of unselfish people. That’s a lot of routes to run without touching the ball. And you’re playing a lot of kids. Asking guys to block on the perimeter with all of those bubble screens. All the stuff you’re doing takes unselfish, committed kids.”
Amongst that group is Blaha, who excelled as a sophomore last season. A native of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, he both threw and rushed for a touchdown in all but one game in 2022. That dual-threat ability allowed him to throw for 2,000-plus yards, while rushing for 1,000 more.
“It’s crazy that with all of the [passing] records, this is the first time in three years that we bring back the same quarterback.” Walker commented. “He’s so good at running the football. From every receiver, to every running back, to every quarterback, he’s the best ball carrier I’ve ever had, with his vision and ability to change direction and stay full speed.
“To have that at the same time as being a good quarterback and being able to manage a no-huddle, fast-paced offense, he’s the ingredients for a star. I think the underrated piece of him is that he’s so tough. He takes all those hits and everybody in the world thinks we’re nuts for running him as much as we do. But it’s our ingredients to win. It’s just what we do.”
Getting the ball in Blaha’s hands takes serious defensive effort, and while it seemed that the offense stole the headlines for much of 2022, UWRF’s defense quietly accomplished its objectives too. Opponents converted on just 30.5 percent of third downs against the Falcon defensive front–the best percentage in the WIAC–and they ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency.
“I’ve said it every time I get a chance to say it,” Walker said. “The offense gets all the publicity, and it deserves a lot. But this whole tempo thing that we’ve done is really because of our defense being all in with us. Going up-tempo is not an offensive decision. It’s a program decision. [Our defense] has played so well, even when we’ve put them in bad situations because of how fast we go. They always answer the bell.”
The excitement could be heard in Walker’s voice as he talked about his returners on both sides of the ball, and the 2023 season ahead. The anticipation has built steadily as the season opener against UMHB draws closer.
Facing any opponent in Week 1 always produces enthusiasm, especially with the aspirations of this program and its upperclassmen. But with a Top 10 program coming to River Falls, that feeling is amplified. UWRF has not lost on its home field since Oct. 23, 2021.
“Whenever you’re rebuilding, one of the steps is believing you can win,” Walker noted, adding that a high level of respect for the opposition is necessary in a challenging league like the WIAC. “Everyone is going to say, ‘We believe we can do it,’ but down deep do they really believe that?
“I think that was one of the steps we had to get over. It’s clearly a hump now that we’ve hurdled. We believe anytime we line up against somebody we can win. We’re as prepared as anybody for a big game like this against Mary Hardin-Baylor.”