Winless in its non-conference games, Western Illinois hosts Northern Iowa to begin the 2022 Missouri Valley season. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)
Three games into the 2022 season and its conference opener Saturday, Western Illinois still remains a bit of a mystery.
Fresh off a 17-10 loss to Southern Utah, the Leathernecks (0-3) have three offensive positions listed with multiple possibilities for the starting lineup.
Whether this is because the WIU staff is still evaluating film and practice or simply trying to keep its next opponent guessing is open for discussion. This day in age, it’s certainly not uncommon. Last week, for example, the University of Minnesota didn’t release a depth chart, so Colorado — the Golden Gophers’ foe — put one out from 1979.
Irregardless, at the top of WIU’s list are three quarterbacks who have seen game action thus far: graduate student Henry Ogala and juniors Nick Davenport and Clay Bruno.
Ogala started the first two games, losses to Tennessee Martin and Minnesota. The 6-foot-3, 219-pounder is 20-for-36 passing for 139 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Davenport, who saw action in each of the Ogala starts, got the starting nod against Southern Utah. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, Davenport is 18-for-40 on pass attempts. He has thrown for 317 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Meanwhile, Bruno came off the bench against Southern Utah and led WIU on a game-tying drive capped by his seven-yard touchdown run with 54 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
However, Southern Utah won the game with a 73-yard touchdown with only 31 seconds left.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Bruno ran for a team-high 84 yards as well as throwing for 220 yards. The former Rochester High School standout completed 18-of-30 passes.
“Clay came in and did some good things, even though we did not put the ball in the end zone,” first-year head coach Myers Hendrickson said afterward. “It is frustrating, you look at the net yards (347-334 in Western’s favor), we ran 20 more plays than them, we had more yards, but we turned the ball over offensively too much to win.”
Western suffered five turnovers in the defeat.
Of interest is Naseim Brantley, the leading receiver in the Missouri Valley, being listed as an “or” on the WIU depth chart.
This week’s opponent
Northern Iowa finds itself in the uncustomary position of an 0-3 start. The Panthers lost their home opener 37-21 to nationally ranked Sacramento State, resulting in the worst start since 1969.
“At UNI everybody starts to think (about playoffs) just because of what we expect and where we’ve been so many times,” 21-year head coach Mark Farley told The Cedar Falls Gazette.
Included in the winless start is a Missouri Valley Football Conference loss to North Dakota, ranked No. 19 in this week’s STATS FCS media poll.
UNI quarterback Theo Day is second in the MVFC, averaging 296.7 yards passing per game. Deion McShane, the younger brother of former Western running back Steve McShane, is his favorite target with 15 receptions for 302 yards.
Defensive back Korby Sander is second in the conference with 28 tackles.
(Kickoff: 3 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Q981FM.com)
Key matchup to watch
WIU defense vs. UNI passing game: Day has thrown for five touchdowns this season while being intercepted three times. He has completed passes to 13 different receivers.
“We came a lot closer as a defense after suffering that big loss at Minnesota. They (Southern Utah) only had two or three explosive plays,” WIU linebacker Juan DelaCruz said.
Unfortunately, one of those explosive plays was the game-winning 73-yard pass.
“The goal is to limit that to zero (going forward),” De La Cruz said.
What’s at stake?
Playing at home for the second straight week, Western is determined to get Hendrickson his first victory as his alma mater’s head coach.
UNI certainly doesn’t want to fall to 0-2 in the conference and winless in four games.
WIU’s Brantley leads the MVFC is receiving yards (337), receiving touchdowns (four) and receiving yards per game (112.3), while ranking second in receptions per game (5.7) and total catches (17) . . . Leatherneck defensive back JJ Ross has two interceptions thus far . . . Former Western Illinois head coach Darrell Mudra died earlier this week at age 93. Mudra, a member of the WIU and College Football Halls of Fame, coached the Leathernecks from 1969 to 1973. He posted a 39-13 record with WIU.
+Barry Bottino contributed to this story.