Western Illinois marking small victories in pursuit of first win of the season

Junior linebacker Juan DelaCruz (17) is Western’s second-leading tackler this season with 44 stops, and he leads WIU with six quarterback hurries. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)

By Barry Bottino

Western Illinois does not have a victory this season, but the Leathernecks are marking small wins each week.         

“As a defense, we’ve seen a lot of growth from each week with smaller details,” junior linebacker Juan Delacruz said. “We set goals at the beginning of a week with what we want to accomplish as individuals and as a unit.”

One example was holding Southern Illinois to fewer explosive plays last week. Despite SIU’s 30-7 victory, Western allowed only one 15-yard run and four pass plays of 20 or more yards.

“We set goals to keep us motivated, and hopefully these goals will lead us to our first win,” he said. “(A win) would mean a lot. It would feel like all the time we’ve spent preparing has paid off.”

The biggest challenge for Western (0-6 overall, 0-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) in its homecoming game Saturday is facing one of the top running backs in FCS.

Youngstown State (3-3, 1-2) brings senior running back Jaleel McLaughlin to Macomb, who ranks second nationally with 142.7 yards a game and has two 200-yard games to his credit this season.

“He’s a very explosive, shifty running back and he’s also very patient,” DelaCruz said. “He really knows how to use his speed well. He can give defenses a lot of trouble.

“If we can slow him down a little bit, we can have others rally to the football and gang tackle him. It’s all about not waiting and taking your shot (as a defender).”

This week’s opponent

At 3-3, Youngstown State’s losses have come against FBS Kentucky, North Dakota State and North Dakota. The Penguins have the second-best rushing offense in the MVFC at 202.2 yards a game and have scored at least 31 points in all three of their victories. … Senior linebacker Greg Benton Jr., who has started every game, played last season at WIU. Benton has 19 tackles and a forced fumble.

(Kickoff: 3 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Q981FM.com)

Key matchup to watch

YSU QB Demeatric Crenshaw vs. WIU defense: McLaughlin is a load for any defense to handle, but Crenshaw’s improvements as a passer have helped the offense. He has passed for five touchdowns and just two interceptions. While starting nine games last season as a freshman, Crenshaw passed for six touchdowns and five interceptions. He is also adept at using his legs, scoring eight career rushing TDs.

What’s at stake?

The Leathernecks are seeking their first win since beating Illinois State, 38-31, on Oct. 30, 2021. WIU has lost eight games in a row.

Quick hits

The Western offense has been successful on only 21% of its third-down plays this season. Keeping drives alive will be a major point of emphasis for the rest of the season. … A week after starting senior Henry Ogala at quarterback, Western’s depth chart lists the potential starter as Ogala or juniors Clay Bruno or Nick Davenport. … Senior kicker Mason Laramie is 4-for-6 this season on field goals with a season-long of 47 yards.

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