Their Leathernecks may be hard to see with all that hair.
But, they're also long on experience and one of the keys to Western Illinois' success and strength.
"I love our offensive line, we've got four seniors there--a bunch of experience, a bunch of starts. We ought to be able to run the football, that's where it all starts," WIU head coach Charlie Fisher said during the preseason.
Those long-haired Leatherneck linemen were one of the keys to opening the season by throttling Tennessee Tech 41-14 on the road last week. WIU rushed for 298 yards on 56 attempts (5.3 average). Western scored three times running the ball.
"We were a little slow early, we were doing some new things. I think we just had to get in rhythm a little bit. Once we did, we kind of settled in and let our offensive line really pound the ball and try to take control of the game, and they did. Our running backs really ran the ball hard," Fisher said afterward.
The 22nd-ranked Leathernecks continue their three-game road trip to start the season by facing Northern Arizona Saturday. Kickoff is 6 p.m. central time. Last year in Macomb, Western knocked off the Lumberjacks 34-20
"I'm a little biased, but our offensive line is going to be really good this year," senior center Jacob Judd said. "We’ve got five seniors, one who transferred in from another school (Lucas Holder from Liberty). That makes a huge difference.
"Anybody who has been part of a veteran offensive line knows that it makes a lot bigger difference than somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing. We’ve got guys that not only have had playing time, but have been in this offense for a couple of years now. We’ve also got players who are not seniors that are ready to step in. Not that we want injuries, but playing o-line is a physically taxing job."
Western used nine different runners in the win at Tennessee Tech, including including defensive lineman Khalen Saunders who scored a touchdown a la William Perry circa 1985. Sophomore Max Norris, who recorded his first carries as a Leatherneck, rushed for 133 yards. Receiver Jaelon Acklin ran twice for 37 yards and a score.
Steve McShane, who was second among conference rushers with 917 yards a year ago, carried the ball just seven times against TTU.
"I love all of our running backs," right tackle James Torgerson said. "Steve, obviously, is a special player. He’s probably the fastest guy in the Missouri Valley. There’s no one who can make cuts like he can. Sometimes if we don’t block things up right, he makes us look right and it looks like a great play even though we didn’t do our job."
McShane, however, has been slowed this season by an ankle injury. Still, Torgerson remains confident of his teammates.
"We’ve had young guys step up. Max Norris and Vic Johnson really had good springs," Torgerson said.
Joining Judd and Torgerson in the offensive line are: right guard Drew Wagner, left guard Jordan Detweiler, left tackle Josh Baldus (Palatine) and tight ends Adam Conrady and Cal Breedlove.
So, who has the best hair?
"That’s easy, me," Torgerson said. "No question. It’s the blonde hair. Blonde hair is cooler than dark hair. Mine is a little longer than his (Judd). He’s got me beat on the beard, but my hair is the best."
Western Illinois (1-0) at Northern Arizona (0-1) at Flagstaff, 6 p.m. Saturday. Game airs on WRMSfm.com.
Three key matchups
- WIU defense vs. NAU offense: The Lumberjacks piled up 562 yards of total offense in their 62-24 season-opening loss at Arizona. NAU had two players rush for more than 100 yards against the Wildcats.
- WIU offensive line vs. NAU front seven: Of the nine touchdowns Arizona scored against NAU, six of them were of 30 yards or longer, including runs of 37, 46, 55 and 66 yards.
- WIU 3-4 vs. NAU QB Case Cookus: Cookus, a sophomore who appeared in only in four games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending injury, threw for 306 yards against Arizona but was intercepted twice and sacked twice.
In last fall's Leatherneck victory over Northern Arizona, Steve McShane rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Sean McGuire completed 22-of-31 throws for 336 yards and two TDs. NAU quarterback Case Cookus went 26-for-33 for 263 yards and two scores.