By RICK SOLEM
All the momentum had shifted.
A crowd-oohing stick by UW-La Crosse senior Brett Benson forced a fumble.
Teammate Andy Walsh, all 260 pounds of him, picked it up and pulled the plow 53 yards for a touchdown, seemingly tip-toeing the sideline every step of the way.
UW-L’s football team was back in it, pulling within four, just minutes into the third quarter against the sixth ranked team in the country.
The momentum, however, didn’t last. North Central College (Ill.) answered on offense with a TD, then on defense, and, one more TD on offense for good measure.
The Cardinals racked up a record-breaking 674 yards in a 41-24 win Saturday at Veterans Memorial Complex.
NCC was a well-oiled machine after Benson’s stick and Walsh’s rumbling stumble into the end zone.
Every play they ran seemed to have a goal. Every goal, obtained.
They drove 80 yards to answer Walsh’s score, stuffed UW-L on a three-and-out, then drove 81 yards for another touchdown and it was over.
For the second week in a row, the Eagles couldn’t contain the quarterback.
Spencer Stanek, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior, rushed for 124 yards on 15 carries – he ran in the first two NCC TDs from 12 and 13 yards out – and threw for 330 yards and a TD.
NCC (1-0) was 9-for-13 on third-down conversions and 6-for-6 once in the red zone.
The game didn’t start with the makings of a blowout.
The Eagles scored first when Andy Sires hit Christ Stackhouse – a Houston High School connection from when the two won a state title in 2008 – and the game looked within reach for three quarters.
UW-L, however, was reeling heading into the locker room – down 21-10 - and, while the Walsh score was exciting and much needed for the home team, it just masked the inevitable.
The Eagles couldn’t get stops. That was the case last week, as well, when they gave up 455 yards.
NCC rushed 55 times for 344 yards, while the Eagles needed 32 carries to gain 119.
In the air, Sires was 14-for-25 for 145 yards with two TDs and a pick. He was sacked three times, however.
UW-L also had no answer for 6-5 junior Peter Sorenson (9 catches, 105 yards) or 6-2 senior Chad O’Kane (8-142).
Things could get easier next week before UW-L opens with powerhouse Whitewater to open WIAC play.
The Eagles head to Rolla, Mo., to take on Missouri S&T, which lost 40-34 in two overtimes to open the year and 63-3 on Saturday.
La Crosse lost to Dubuque 35-24 in last week’s opener. The Spartans, today, defeated UW-Platteville (1-1) 38-24.