Defensive effort proves encouraging for first-year Western Illinois head coach

Linebacker Juan DelaCruz leads Western Illinois this season with 75 tackles and a team-high seven quarterback hurries. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

By Barry Bottino

Western Illinois head coach Myers Hendrickson watched his team lose Saturday for the 10th time this season. But what the first-year Leatherneck coach saw in Macomb was one of his team’s best defensive efforts in a 21-0 loss to Indiana State.

“I thought we played tough, disciplined football,” Hendrickson said. “The defense played outstanding.”

Western allowed its second-lowest point total and second-lowest yardage total (350) to an opposing offense this season against the Sycamores.

The Leathernecks (0-10 overall, 0-7 Missouri Valley Football Conference) will need to carry over the improved play this Saturday in the season finale at Illinois State (5-5, 3-4) to have a chance at winning their first game of the season and breaking a 12-game losing streak dating back to last season.

Linebackers Chase Graham (11) and Juan DelaCruz (10) led Western in tackles last weekend and helped hold Indiana State to seven second-half points.

“Everyone out there did their jobs and filled their gaps,” Graham said. “When your gap is filled, there’s no place to go.”

The one downside for the WIU defense was allowing Indiana State to convert 10 of 18 third-down opportunities, which led to ISU rolling up more than 38 minutes in time of possession.

Western’s offense struggled to stay on the field, going 2-for-11 on third downs and gaining only nine rushing yards.

The Western offense will be without its biggest weapon, senior wide receiver Naseim Brantley, at Illinois State. Brantley sustained a serious left leg injury in the third quarter against Indiana State after catching a 33-yard pass. He was taken off the field on a stretcher with his leg immobilized.

Brantley broke his left leg just above the ankle and required surgery, according to a WIU spokesperson.

Without Brantley’s nine TD catches and 89 receiving yards a game, the passing game will lean on Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong (25 catches, three TDs) and junior Jaylin Jackson, who has 11 of his 25 receptions in the past two weeks.

This week’s opponent

Illinois State has played the past two games without starting quarterback Zack Annexstad because of a shoulder injury. The Redbirds have scored a combined 24 points in the past two weeks. Backup Tommy Rittenhouse, a redshirt freshman, has completed 17 of 34 passes for 158 yards and thrown an interception. Against Youngstown State on Nov. 5, Rittenhouse showed off his speed, rushing for 81 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yard scoring run on the first play of the game. … Defense remains the Illinois State calling card this season, as the Redbirds rank third in the MVFC in total defense, third in passing defense and fifth in rush defense. Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, who was added recently to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list for the FCS’ best defensive player, has 10.5 of the team’s 29 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Kenton Wilhoit is the next-best ISU player in both categories with four sacks and six TFLs. …. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Daniel Sobkowicz started fall camp as a walk-on at Illinois State. He earned a scholarship before the season and is now the team’s leader in receptions (31), receiving yards (377) and touchdown catches (three).

(Kickoff: 11 a.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

WIU offense vs. ISU LB Zeke Vandenburgh: A Freeport native, Vandenburgh is a menace to opposing offenses who can wreck a play at any moment. The Leathernecks will need to use offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs to make sure they block Vandenburgh, who had three sacks against No. 1 South Dakota State last weekend.   

What’s at stake?

The Leathernecks are seeking their first victory this fall against a team they defeated last season. A win would give WIU some much-needed momentum going into the off-season.

Quick hits

Western’s offense advanced into Indiana State territory on three consecutive first-half drives but couldn’t score. They gave up the ball on downs once, punted and quarterback Clay Bruno threw an interception. “I thought the offense had opportunities to score,” Hendrickson said. “If we do, it’s a totally different game. In the first half, if we could take a lead, it could have been a different game.” … Tight end Nathan Karsjens, making his first start of the season, had three catches for 43 yards against Indiana State. … Outside linebacker Cole Watts continues to be the team’s most disruptive pass rusher. His sack against Indiana State raised his season total to 4.5. As a team, the Leathernecks have 12 sacks in 10 games. Watts also leads the team with seven TFLs.

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