WHITEWATER—UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis is not a TV meteorologist, but he estimated the wind was blowing toward the north end zone of Perkins Stadium at about 3 mph at 3:50 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
If that was accurate, Warhawk kicker Jeff Isotalo-McGuire used every bit of that wind to earn the ride of his life.
Isotalo-McGuire’s field-goal attempt from 49 yards away hit the crossbar, went up in the air and over on the final play of the game to provide the Warhawks with a critical 30-27 victory over visiting UW-River Falls.
The victory keeps the Warhawks tied for first place in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with a 4-1 record and knocks the Falcons into a tie for second at 3-2.
Whitewater is tied with La Crosse in the top spot, but the Warhawks own the main tiebreaker over the Eagles, their 34-31 victory in their head-to-head matchup Oct. 1. Isotalo-McGuire also won that game with a 39-yard field goal with three seconds left in the game.
A freshman eligibility-wise but a junior academically after studying two years at Nevada-Las Vegas, Isotalo-McGuire knew he had the leg to kick the ball 49 yards.
“I’m comfortable from 49,” Isotalo-McGuire said. “If I hit the ball correctly, I can hit from 55.”
Isotalo-McGuire earlier had made field goals from 38 and 30 yards. He has made 10 of 16 attempts and all 22 of his extra-point attempts for a team-high 52 points.
Not many in the Homecoming crowd of 13,713 would have thought at halftime that the game would come down to a 49-yard field goal attempt. Several small groups of students were seen walking up the hill toward Wells Hall or maybe downtown to get an early jump on the celebration at halftime.
Whitewater dominated the first 30 minutes and led 27-6.
River Falls came into the game leading the WIAC in scoring (47.3 ppg) and total yards gained (527 ypg).
But the Warhawks limited the fast-paced Falcons to a lone touchdown and 141 yards in the first half.
River Falls quarterback Kaleb Blaha earned WIAC Offensive Player of the Week honors last week after throwing for three touchdowns and running for another and accounting for 315 total yards—all in the first half—in a romp over UW-Eau Claire.
On Saturday, Blaha went 0-for-4 passing, threw an interception that set up a 38-yard field goal by Isotalo-McGuire and gained 6 yards on six carries in the first quarter. At half, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Blaha had minus-16 yards rushing and 148 yards passing.
But Blaha led the Falcons’ second-half charge by completing 14 of 30 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown and rushing 12 times for a net of 35 yards.
Warhawks linebacker Ryan Liszka led the Warhawks with 11 tackles (9 solo), and he was drained after the game.
“He’s hard to get down on the ground,” the 6-1, 224-pound Liszka said of Blaha.
The Falcons were limited to 37 offensive plays in the first half when the Warhawks possessed the ball for 18:43 and had 13 first downs.
In the second half, River Falls ran 50 offensive plays when the Warhawk offense managed nine first downs and 16:43 of possession time.
Liszka shrugged off the peppering of plays the defense faced.
“(Coaches) had us prepared,” he said. “Definitely faster in practices. (The scout team) go as fast as they can, but you really can’t mimic that.”
The Warhawks countered by running the ball effectively.
Tamir Thomas gained 131 yards on 20 carries, including a 17-yard touchdown on a cutback up the middle with 27 seconds left in the first half.
Jaylon Edmondson added 72 yards on 12 carries. With Preston Strasberg adding 27 yards, the Warhawks finished with 217 yards rushing on 44 attempts.
“That was huge,” Bullis said.
River Falls scored three straight touchdowns in the second half to tie the score at 27-all with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter.
Whitewater was forced to punt with 1:10 left, but River Falls could not get a first down and punted from its 31.
The punt traveled just 26 yards and Warhawks returner Tyler Holte, who had muffed a punt to set up one of the Falcons’ second-half touchdowns, sprinted up and caught the ball before it had a chance to bounce deeper in Warhawk territory.
“I kind of knew it was going to be a short one,” said Holte, who had six receptions for 50 yards. “I kind of had to dive for it.”
That set the Warhawks up at their 43 with 33 seconds left. Quarterback Evan Lewandowski threw two incompletions to set up a third and 10. From the shotgun, Lewandowski handed the ball to Strasberg, who weaved his way for 13 yards to the Falcons 44, and Whitewater used its first timeout.
“We were trying to figure out if we’d go for it and wouldn’t have to punt,” Bullis said. “We decided to go with the running play that we thought was going to open up.”
With 11 seconds left, Lewandowski found Sam DeLany in the middle of the field to the River Falls 32.
Whitewater called timeout and out trotted Isotalo-McGuire.
River Falls tried to ice him by calling a timeout.
Long snapper Quinn Kelly delivered the snap to holder Nate Custer, who placed it down. Isotalo-McGuire hit the ball.
“I really didn’t hit it too well,” Isotalo-McGuire said. “I probably should have hit it a little harder. I wanted to get it a little bit soft, because I knew if you overdo it, you can pull it, push it. I wanted to keep it down the line.”
He probably should have informed his head coach of that plan. For a split second, Bullis thought the game was headed to overtime.
“There was just a tiny bit of wind, maybe a 3 mph wind behind him,” Bullis said. “He actually got a little too much under it.
“He kind of punched it. I thought when it left his foot that it’s not getting there.”
Isotalo-McGuire was watching the flight.
“It was going straight,” Isotalo-McGuire said. “That’s all that matters. If I had hit it a little bit harder, I would have been celebrating earlier.”
The kicker saw the ball bounce off the crossbar. From field level, he couldn’t tell whether it bounced back toward him or away from him. A split-second later, he knew.
“I listened to the crowd,” he said. “They’ll tell you.”
The Homecoming crowd went nuts. Then his teammates engulfed him and soon he was on top of some of their shoulders.
“All of a sudden, I was as light as a feather,” he said. “It was a pretty special moment.”
W-WHITEWATER 30, UW-RIVER FALLS 27
River Falls 0 6 14 7—27
Whitewater 10 17 0 3—30
Scoring summary: W—Sam DeLany, 4 pass from Evan Lewandowski (Jeff Isotalo-McGuire kick). W—FG, Isotalo-McGuire, 38. W—Preston Strasburg, 1 run (Isotalo-McGuire kick). RF—Luke Kush, 19 pass from Kaleb Blaha (pass failed). W—FG. Isotalo-McGuire, 30. W—Tamir Thomas, 17 run (Isotola-McGuire kick). RF—Michael Krueger, 1 run (J. Scheberl kick). RF—Blaha, 1 run (Scheberl kick). RF—Luke Kush, 22 pass from Blaha (Scheberl kick) W—FG, Isotalo-McGuire, 49.
Statistics: First downs—RF 21, W 22. Rushes-yards—RF 35-35, W 44-216. Yards passing—RF 205, W 206. Passes (comp.-atts.-int.)—RF 25-52-1, W 21-35-2. Fumbles-lost—RF 2-0, W 1-1. Penalties—RF 3-25, W 7-80.