Defensive lineman Cam Washington (25) and linebacker Cole Watts (11) would like nothing more than to celebrate a victory. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)
By Dan Verdun
Mired in the longest losing streak in the FCS, Western Illinois continues to forge ahead.
“Our team is always going to play hard,” WIU head coach Mark Hendrickson said.
The Leathernecks (0-8 overall, 0-5 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) have lost 10 consecutive games dating back to last season.
WIU has had some near misses — both on its home field in Macomb.
On Sept. 17, Western gave up a 73-yard touchdown pass in the final minute and lost to Southern Utah, 17-10.
On Oct. 22, WIU surrendered a 10-point lead in the last two-and-a half minutes and lost to Youngstown State, 28-27.
Giving up explosive plays to the opposition has done serious damage to the Leathernecks. FCS opponents have scored nine times this season via an explosive play — five by pass and four by run.
That total does not include three more — two by run — in a 62-10 loss to the University of Minnesota of the FBS Big Ten Conference.
The Leathernecks rank 118th out of 123 FCS teams in scoring defense, surrendering 41.12 points a game.
Western has also struggled on offense. WIU is 112th in scoring offense (15 ppg) and 120th in the FCS in rushing (74.1 yards per game).
The Leathernecks rank second to last in the country in turnover margin (-13). Only Northwestern State (La.) is worse at -18.
Taking over a program that has won just four games in the last three seasons is certainly an uphill climb. Yet, Hendrickson remains optimistic and finds positives whenever and wherever he can.
“Seeing things we worked all in practice on and then executing it at clutch times (is one example),” Hendrickson said, noting WIU’s scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal Oct. 20 at Missouri State.
There is also the promising play of underclassmen such as freshman Ryan Crandall.
“The coaching staff had trust in me. It’s a blessing to be here,” Crandall said. “As an outside linebacker, our group is pretty close. I have a lot of veterans in that group and they’ve taught me a whole lot.”
Crandall, an Iowa native, made his first career start against Youngstown State in place of an injured Anthony Quinney.
“He went out there and had 10 tackles and an interception (and a fumble recovery) as a true freshman,” Hendrickson said.
This week’s opponent
North Dakota State comes into Macomb after knocking off Illinois State 24-7 in Fargo last weekend.
The Bison (6-2, 4-1) are ranked No. 4 in the Stats Perform FCS poll and Coaches FCS Top 25.
Quarterback Cam Miller completed 20 of a career-high 30 passing attempts for 174 yards with one touchdown. He also ran for a score in the win over ISU.
Moreover, Miller completed throws to nine different receivers against the Redbirds.
Kicker Griffin Crossa has made eight straight field goals dating back to March 2021, and he’s made 56 consecutive PAT kicks dating back to 2019. Crossa’s older brother, Sam, was a kicker for WIU in 2017 and ’18 before transferring to Cincinnati in 2019.
(Kickoff: 1 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Q981FM.com)
Key matchup to watch
WIU defense vs. NDSU run game: The Leathernecks rank 116th in FCS rushing defense, allowing 224.1 yards per game, while the Bison are fifth in rushing offense with 239.2 rushing yards per game.
Fullback Hunter Luepke and left tackle Cody Mauch are both on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award presented to the FCS Offensive Player of the Year.
What’s at stake?
Senior Erin Collins leads WIU with 152 rushing yards. With two games remaining, that’s the lowest total in the Leathernecks’ Division I era (not counting Ludovick Choquette’s 116 in the COVID-shortened spring season of 2020).
WIU receiver Naseim Brantley leads the MVFC in receiving yards (742), receiving yards per game (92.8) and receiving touchdowns (nine). His 40 receptions rank fifth in the league . . . Defensive back T.J. Limehouse leads the Leathernecks with 68 tackles, fourth highest in the conference.
+Barry Bottino contributed to this post.