Clay Bruno will likely start his third game in a row Saturday when Western Illinois travels to Carbondale for an MVFC game against SIU. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)
By Barry Bottino
Western Illinois quarterback Clay Bruno is the Leathernecks’ leading rusher and passer this season.
Seeing game action for the first time in his career has made the junior quite appreciative.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunities that I have gotten so far this fall,” he said. “I think I have a lot of room to improve still. Completing more balls and finding ways to put more points on the board are two major points of focus.”
Bruno likely will start his third game in a row Saturday when Western (0-5 overall, 0-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) travels to face No. 16 Southern Illinois (4-2, 3-0).
A former standout at Rochester High School in central Illinois, Bruno has 104 rushing yards and the Leathernecks’ only touchdown on the ground this season. As a passer, he has completed 55% of his throws with one touchdown and six interceptions. Bruno’s 171.67 passing yards per game leads WIU, which has played three quarterbacks this fall.
On Saturday in Carbondale, Bruno will face off against fellow Rochester grad Nic Baker, the SIU quarterback who is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS honor for the nation’s top offensive player.
Each team features three players from Rochester: Bruno, junior wide receiver Cade Eddington and sophomore running back Jacob Durocher for Western, along with Baker and twin brothers Avante and D’Ante Cox at receiver for SIU.
“I first met Nic when I was a freshman and he was a junior,” Bruno said. “That year, we had both of the Cox twins also. They were seniors at the time. Nic was always great to be around and a guy everyone loved. We keep in touch a little bit here and there. When we are at home during the offseason is when we see the most of each other working out in the (Rochester Athletic Complex).”
Western wide receivers coach Zach Grant is also a graduate of Rochester, which has won eight state football titles.
“I’m very proud that I was able to be a part of making history at Rochester and playing with so many of my best friends,” Bruno said. “It’s a community thing in Rochester. Everyone knows about how the team did on Friday night, and that gives us as players a great sense of pride to play for more than just ourselves.”
Many of those same fans who wore orange and blue on Friday nights to cheer on the Rockets will be in the stands Saturday in Carbondale.
“I know that there is going to be a lot of people from Rochester there to support all of us playing in the game,” Bruno said. “I know Cade, Jacob, and I have all been hearing from people back home about how they will be down there. I know some of our coaches are going to be down there, so it will be great to compete and see everyone.”
This week’s opponent
After starting 0-2, 16th-ranked Southern has ripped off four wins in a row, including an upset of FBS Northwestern and last weekend’s road win at Missouri State. … The Salukis (30.33) are among only 33 teams nationally who are averaging 30 or more points per game. They rank eighth in the nation in first downs with 142. …. The star-studded offense includes Baker, do-it-all running back Javon Williams Jr. (7-for-11 passing, three rushing TDs, 16 receptions) and the dynamic wide receiver duo of the Cox twins, who have combined for 54 catches, five touchdowns, 737 receiving yards and big plays galore. Defensively, the Salukis lead the MVFC with 23 sacks, thanks to five from defensive end Richie Hagarty. Eleven different players have at least one sack.
(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Q981FM.com)
Key matchup to watch
SIU offense vs. Leatherneck defense: While SIU ranks eighth nationally in first downs, Western has allowed opponents 136 first downs this season, which is 105th among FCS teams. Limiting big plays will be Western’s biggest challenge against a powerful Salukis offensive unit.
What’s at stake?
The Leathernecks are seeking their first win of the Myers Hendrickson era. On home turf in 2018, WIU beat the Salukis, 34-31. The teams have split their past six games.
WIU wide receiver Naseim Brantley ranks eighth in the nation with 99 receiving yards per game and 12th with five receiving touchdowns. … Western has used five different running backs this season, but they have struggled to consistently run the football. The Leathernecks are managing only 81 yards on the ground per game. … Senior safety T.J. Limehouse has emerged on defense for Western and is leading the team in tackles with 40.