Western blows away Southern, enters FCS playoffs on hot streak

Western blows away Southern, enters FCS playoffs on hot streak
Sophomore running back Max Norris led Western Illinois in rushing Saturday and scored a third-quarter touchdown. (Photo by WIU)

Staying warm in 40-degree temperatures with a 25 mph wind can be a challenge.

Thanks to a stout defense and a offense that warmed up in the second quarter to blow away a slow start, Western Illinois ended the season on a hot streak Saturday with a 28-14 Missouri Valley Football Conference victory against Southern Illinois.

The victory gave WIU (8-3 overall, 5-3 MVFC) a three-game win streak to end the regular season and a stronger resume heading into the FCS playoffs. The pairings will be announced at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU, and the Leathernecks are hoping for a top-eight seed and a first-round bye.

SIU, meanwhile, finished 4-7 (2-6 MVFC) for the second season in a row.

“There’s a lot of dancing going on (in the locker room) and obviously a lot of elation,” WIU head coach Charlie Fisher said.

The joy of heading into the playoffs was in stark contrast to the end of Western’s season a year ago. Last season, Western lost three games in a row to end the season and missed the postseason.

“A year ago, I stood in front of the team in probably as tough of a moment in my coaching career after getting knocked out of the playoffs,” he said. “This tells you a little bit about our heart and our soul and our character. We beat a good, solid football team today and we had to beat the elements.”

WIU quarterback Sean McGuire connected with running back Steve McShane on a 14-yard scoring pass, then tossed a 52-yard bomb to wide receiver Jaelon Acklin to build a 14-0 second-quarter lead. The Leathernecks upped their lead to 21-0 lead in the third quarter on a 17-yard Max Norris TD run.

Southern’s offense, meanwhile, never got moving until the fourth quarter. The Salukis (4-7, 2-6) had two first downs in the first three quarters before SIU quarterback Matt DeSomer threw a pair of touchdowns late in the game.

“Our defense played awesome, and we got on track,” Fisher said. “We found a way to get (win) number eight and really put a stamp on this season.”

Western’s David Griffith and Xavier Rowe both intercepted DeSomer, who finished the game 6-for-10 for only 62 yards.

“There are things we have to get better at, but most of those guys are first- and second-year guys,” SIU coach Nick Hill said of his young roster. “We have to keep developing, and it has to pay off in wins.”

Players of the game

WIU senior wide receiver Jaelon Acklin broke the single-season school record for receiving yards by catching six passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Senior safety Ryan Neal, the Salukis’ leading tackler this season, had nine stops to lead his team.

Western linebacker Brett Taylor, the national tackles leader, had a game-high 16 stops.

Matt DeSomer, SIU’s junior quarterback, led the team with 73 yards rushing and 62 yards passing.

WIU’s Max Norris, a sophomore running back, led the Leathernecks with 68 yards on the ground. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry.

By The Numbers

6 – First downs in the game for SIU’s offense.

10 – Third-down conversions for Western in 19 attempts.

11 – Drives (of 13 total) for the Salukis that went for less than 20 yards.

11 – Sacks in the last three games for Western.

11:56 – Time of possession advantage for the Leathernecks in the win.

43.2 – Punting average by SIU’s Lane Reazin on six kicks.

What’s Next?

Western Illinois (8-3) advances to the FCS playoffs as an at-large team. Pairings will be announced at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.

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