RIVER FALLS -- For the second straight week the River Falls football team found itself in a dogfight. But this time the other dog won.
The Wildcats were able to pull out a 35-28 shootout in the closing seconds against New Richmond in their season opener a week earlier, but Friday night at David Smith Stadium it was Onalaska who struck the final blow, scoring on a 38-yard tight end screen from quarterback Austin Larson to Conner Haggerty with 5 minutes, 37 seconds remaining to leave town with a 28-21 win.
River Falls coach David Crail said he welcomed another close game, but the Wildcats need to be better when they begin Big Rivers Conference play against Hudson next week.
“It was a dogfight and we anticipated that,” he said. “That’s a good team over there; they’ve got a lot of good things going for them. But we’ve got to do better. We’ve had two battles now in non conference play, which is really good. I’m glad we had those close contests and that they got to see what adversity looks like. But we’ve got to get better as we go into conference play.”
Trailing 21-14 early in the third quarter, the Wildcats appeared to grab the momentum when they overcame two third-and-very-long situations while marching 83 yards to tie the score.
The Cats had a 55-yard touchdown pass from Peter Noreen to Joe Stoffel wiped out by a pass interference penalty, and after a first down sack they faced a third-and-24 at their own 17. Jaden Schwantz got 23 yard back on a sweep around the left side and Seth Kohel converted on fourth down to give the Cats a new set of downs near midfield.
Another penalty on the Cats put them in a third-and-17 at their own 40 before Noreen found Stoffel over the top for a 52-yard gain down to the Hilltopper eight. Two plays later Schwantz was able to tuck the ball inside the right pylon and Stefan Klechefski nailed the extra point to tie the score 21-21 with 1:47 remaining in the third.
Klechefski then recovered his own onside kick and the Cats moved inside the Hilltopper ten-yard line early in the fourth quarter before Noreen’s pass on 4th-and-goal intended for Stoffel in the end zone fell incomplete.
Crail said the Cats couldn’t afford to come up empty on that drive.
“We have to put points on the board in some way,” he said. “Coming up empty in that situation was crushing. We put ourselves in a situation where I didn’t know if the field goal was going to get it done because Onalaska’s offense had been playing pretty well. So we decided to go for it and didn’t get it.”
Onalaska’s game-winning drive came after a Kohel fumble at the Hilltopper 30, leading to the 38-yard touchdown pass from Larson to Haggerty.
River Falls had one last chance but turned the ball over on downs at their own 34 with 3:23 remaining and the Hilltoppers made two first downs before running out the clock.
“Hindsight’s 20-20,” Crail said. “Maybe a punt is better in that situation. Either way, we made a decision and we live with the outcome.”
The Wildcats struck first in the game on a 15-yard touchdown run by Kohel before Larson hit Landson Peterson on the first play of the second quarter for a 38-yard catch-and-run to tie the score.
River Falls marched 79-yards on its next possession, ending with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Kohel to take a 14-7 lead, but Larson and Peterson connected again from 12-yards out just before halftime to make it a 14-14 game.
Larson to Peterson hurt the Cats again on the opening possession of the second half when the pair hooked up for a 37-yard touchdown before River Falls ate up nine minutes ending with Schwantz’s 2-yard TD run to tie the score.
Kohel ran for 151 yards on 21 carries to push his rushing total 411 yards in the Wildcat’s first two games. Noreen carried 11 times for 50 yards and completed 3-of-6 passes for 77 yards with Stoffel accounting for 76 yards on two catches.
Crail said he saw improvement from the Wildcat offense this week but the defense needs to play better after allowing a total of 56 points in the first two games.
“Certainly on the offensive side of the ball I thought we threw the ball better,” he said. “We had some big plays in the passing game. Defensively we just have to flat out get better. We can’t live playing defense the way we’re playing defense right now. That’s a challenge to our guys, it’s a challenge to our coaching staff and myself. How do we get better on the defensive side of the ball? Because it’s going to be a long road if we don’t.”
The Wildcats will open BRC play at home against Hudson Friday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m., Hudson has won the last 10 meetings in the series for the Little Brown Jug but Crail said he’s confident they’ll be ready on Friday.
“We’ve got a really good group,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented kids, and kids who have come to put in the work. So I fully expect we’ll have a good week of practice and be ready to get after Hudson next week.”