UW-River Falls football team

UW-River Falls head coach Matt Walker and the Falcons celebrate their 48-27 victory over Washington University in the inaugural Isthmus Bowl Saturday afternoon, Nov. 20, at Verona Area High School. Photo courtesy of Michelle Bebeau

There have been plenty of lean seasons for the UW-River Falls football team in the last two decades. But all of that changed in the fall of 2021.

Even before the Falcons took the field for their first game in 659 days Sept. 4 at David Smith Stadium, 11th-year head coach Matt Walker felt something special was brewing.

“Strangely, during COVID, I think it was good for us. I could feel something unique happening with this group,” he said. “And then all the way through the summer and preseason, even the other coaches were like, something's different this year.”

It sure was.

In nine previous seasons at UWRF, Walker and the Falcons hadn’t won more than four games and never finished higher than fifth in the 8-team Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

But in 2021 they went 9-2, tying the program record for most wins in a season from 1979, 1995, and 1996, to finish third in the WIAC, their best showing since 2001. After narrowly missing out on a playoff berth, they were invited to play in the inaugural Culver’s Isthmus Bowl, where they defeated Washington University-St. Louis 48-27 at Verona Area High School.

The game was the first postseason college bowl game in Wisconsin state history and the first bowl game in UWRF program history.

The Falcons had the highest-scoring offense in the WIAC with an average of 43.4 points per game. They had a program record 13 players named to All-WIAC teams while Walker was named the WIAC Co-Coach of the Year along with UW-Whitewater’s Kevin Bullis.

UWRF ended the season ranked No. 20 in the final D3Football.com poll and No. 22 in the last American Football Coaches Association rankings. In addition, senior tight end Ben Beise became just the sixth Falcons in UWRF history to earn AFCA First Team All-American honors.

For Walker and the Falcons, it was the result of focusing on doing things the right way.

“I don't want to get into the coaching cliches, but I think good things happen to people who do it right,” he said. “We're not perfect. We're not angels. We've made mistakes. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions. But I just felt like we'd created a culture of good people doing it the right way; doing it for the right reasons and motivated for the right reasons. I just felt like it was going to happen one day.”

Walker said he’s already talked to his assistant coaches and returning players about how hard it was to get here, and how it’s going to be even harder to move the needle even more. But he said it gives the program great energy in recruiting and offseason conditioning. He said he and his staff are back at work recruiting for next year and the returning players have jumped back into the grind of early morning lifting sessions.

“Our journey here is not complete,” he said. “We want to go to the playoffs and we want to win the league. There's a lot more goals to achieve, but this sure will help things as long as everybody keeps working.”

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