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UWRF football nabs a tough win during Senior Day

November 16, 2016

The UW-River Falls Falcon Football  pulled a stunning upset fueled by the senior leaders to take down UW-Stevens Point 34-16 on Senior Day at Ramer Field.

The Falcons came into Senior Day as underdogs to the Stevens Point Pointers, who had managed a 6-3 record compared to UWRF’s 3-6 record. The Pointers forced a Falcon three and out to start the game and built their momentum from there. Kicker Kyle Hendzel drilled an incredible 48-yard field goal on Point’s first drive to take the lead 3-0.

The first quarter struggles continued for the Falcons, who ended their season managing only seven points in the first quarter throughout 10 games this season. This defining statistic continued to put the team in a hole with Point putting together a 57-yard drive which was capped off by a Kyle Larson touchdown pass to give UW-Stevens Point a 10-0 lead.

This began to give the feeling that last year’s 44-0 loss to the Pointers was bound to repeat on Saturday. However, the Falcons responded by scoring on the first play of the second quarter for wide receiver Trenton Monson’s fifth touchdown catch of the year to close the gap to 10-7.

After a fake punt attempt by UW-Stevens Point was shut down perfectly by the Falcons later in the second quarter, UWRF took over possession of the ball at the Point 13-yard line. Only two plays later, quarterback Travon Hearns found Michael Diggins for another passing touchdown to take the lead 14-7.

“Since it was our last game, our head coach said, 'Find a way for these seniors to go out on top,'" defensive lineman Kyle Hunter said. "That was the biggest motivation, that we had nothing to lose and to give it all we had for the seniors going out."

The real story of the day was the huge impact made by senior leaders. Ten Falcons were playing in the final game of their respective careers, and the intensity was clear on the field.

Defensive back Tyler Ledbeter was all over the field and managed to break up two passes. Linebacker Albert Itula continued his dominant season by recording five solo tackles and making Point quarterback Kyle Larson uncomfortable in the pocket all afternoon.

But the two most impressive performances of the day came from Hunter and senior safety Robbie Flom. Hunter added two tackles for loss and came away with two big sacks in key situations for the Falcons. Hunter finished the season leading the WIAC in sacks with 10 and tackles for loss with 13.5.

“I played against Larson in high school, so it was fun getting the sacks on him," Hunter said. "I wasn’t even blocked or touched on the two sacks, so it was more of a team defense kind of deal."

Flom’s biggest impact was on a punt return that ended up sealing the game for the Falcons. Flom returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown on a play that put the Falcons up 34-10 and made Ramer Field the loudest it’s been in recent years. The punt return for a touchdown was also UWRF’s first since at least 1998.

“That punt return was called on the sidelines as a safe call, meaning no one was gonna block and I had to fair catch it. We improvised as a unit on the field and were able to score and celebrate together as a team after. It's nice to know that, after 20 years, we as a team could accomplish this,” Flom said.

Earlier touchdown runs by Rance Ashley and Travon Hearns allowed the Falcons to go on cruise control after the punt return and hold out for a 34-16 win. Defense was clearly the key to the victory, with UWRF allowing a remarkable two yards on 24 carries by the Pointers. The performance on Saturday felt more like the Falcon defense that led the team to a three-game winning streak last season.

“We wanted to show everyone that last game [against Whitewater] wasn't a fluke and, as a team, our emotions were high after the win. For the program, it shows that our team is becoming a contender in this conference,” Flom said.

The Falcon pass attack only put up 139 yards, but was much more consistent on Saturday with a 75 percent completion percentage. The dual quarterback system of Sawyer Moon and Travon Hearns was at its best against Point, with Moon also finishing second on the afternoon in rushing.

With the win, the Falcons finished their 2016 campaign with an identical 4-6 overall record and 3-4 record in the WIAC that they achieved the previous season. The last two performances of the season only breed confidence for what the future may hold, while Hunter believes the Falcons can take the next step.

“I think it will be a great turnaround after we finished fourth in the conference. It will be big for recruiting and shows we’re the next team up to go to the playoffs after the top three WIAC teams,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s senior class will be the last smaller class to finish as Falcons for what could be many seasons to come. The class of 2016 is clearly the transitional class of the program, starting with a grass field and an 0-10 season to now having all new facilities and a fourth place finish.

Hunter also remains optimistic that the Falcon Center and success of the program will continue to bring new recruits into the revitalized program.

“We had recruits coming every day to watch the games, and I don’t know why people wouldn’t come here with the new additions,” Hunter said.

Optimism should be high for the future of the Falcons, with a huge crop of veterans returning. Four of UWRF’s six losses also came to teams who made the Div. III Football Playoffs, proving their strength of schedule was one of the best in the nation.

The biggest improvement needs to be seen at kicker, where the Falcons finished 0-6 on field goals this season. If players can also step up to fill the holes left by a solid senior class, the Falcons can push for their first .500 season in 16 years.

From a team who was 0-10 only three seasons ago, the Falcons now aim to tackle the final obstacle of competing for a WIAC title.