Western Illinois has packed its bags, uploaded a road trip mix of music and heads out on the highway yet again. But this time around, it's for the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, which begin this weekend.
The Leathernecks travel to Ogden, Utah to play Weber State at 3 p.m. Saturday in a first-round matchup. The winner advances to play Southern Utah.
"We love the road. We’re excited to get out to Utah and play some football," WIU quarterback Sean McGuire told Prairie State Pigskin. "We get on the road and it’s so normal. When you do it so much, it helps. For whatever reason, we just like it."
The Leathernecks have had plenty of practice. Western won a school-record six road games this season. During head coach Charlie Fisher's two-year tenure, the Leathernecks are 10-3 in away games.
"I have more confidence in our defense the last three games than I've had all year," junior safety Justin Fitzpatrick said. "It's good to go into the playoffs hot."
Senior Mick Nelson added, "We had nine straight quarters of shutout football. That's something we take a lot of pride in. As long as everyone's doing their job and playing selfless football, we're in a good spot."
Macomb native and senior linebacker Brett Taylor was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week. Taylor, a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as the nation's top defender, led the FCS in tackles.
The Leathernecks' offense has also been potent. Western racked up 45 points in its final regular season victory at Indiana State, marking the fourth time this season that the Leathernecks have tallied 40 or more points. It also represented the sixth occasion with at least 38 points scored. The last time Western Illinois scored 40 or more points in a game that many times in a season was during the 2010 campaign when the Leathernecks mustered five outbursts of 40-plus points.
Defensive back Aaron Diggs credits McGuire for much of that success.
"Sean’s always right there. He’s the first one coming up to us when we make a good play," Diggs said of the junior quarterback. "He’s a hands-on leader. The coolest thing about Sean is he knows we don’t doubt him. If he makes a bad play, he knows we’ve got his back. We’re still behind him. You never see him doubt himself. He just moves on, like a good leader should. He’s ready for the next snap at all times."
McGuire's primary target has been receiver Jaelon Acklin. The senior entered this season with 21 career catches for 364 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Acklin enjoyed a breakout 2017 season, catching 74 balls for 1,253 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. The Mountain View, Mo., native is fourth in the nation in receiving yards (1,253), sixth in both receiving yards per game (113.9) and total touchdowns (14), 11th in receptions per game (6.7), 12th in all-purpose yards per game (134.64) and 13th in receiving touchdowns (10). Acklin's 1,253 receiving yards are a single-season school record.
Western Illinois (8-3) at Weber State (9-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah. (game televised on ESPN3 and broadcast on TuneIn Radio App; Live Stats WeberStateSports.com)
Western Illinois finished the regular season ranked ninth in the STATS FCS 'Top 25' poll and 10th in the FCS Coaches poll. Weber State placed 11th in the STATS FCS 'Top 25' poll, and eighth in the FCS Coaches poll.
Saturday's FCS Playoffs first-round matchup between Western Illinois and Weber State is the third meeting all-time between the schools. The Leathernecks went to Ogden in 1975 to beat the Wildcats by a final of 19-10. Western Illinois then edged Weber State 21-19 the next year in Macomb.
A very balanced team, Weber State ranks 11th in the nation in scoring defense (16.6 ppg) and 12th in scoring offense (35.7 ppg). Offensively, the Wildcats have thrived off their running attack, 196.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks 25th in the FCS. Four different Wildcats have run for at least 350 yards, with Treshawn Garrett's 671 leading the pack. He has registered 5.6 yards per carry and six touchdowns. Quarterback Stefan Cantwell has totaled 24 scores, 18 coming through the air against only five interceptions. He has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,255 yards. His leading receiver is Andrew Vollert, who has caught 44 passes for 557 yards and three touchdowns.
Weber State boasts the top rushing defense in the Big Sky Conference, yielding just 117.3 yards per game. Defensive back Taron Johnson was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. LeGrand Toia is the team's leading tackler with 61 stops, 8.0 tackles for a loss and 5.0 sacks. McKay Murphy tops the Wildcats with 13.0 tackles for a loss, and Jordan Preator has picked off a team-high four passes. In the return game, Rashid Shaheed has taken two kicks back for touchdowns and is averaging 31.7 yards per kick return.
“They (WIU) are a really good team,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill told the The Desert News. “They beat some really good teams this year and their only losses are to some of the elite (FCS) teams in the country. This is a great team coming in here, and it’ll be a heck of a matchup.”
“I think it is great for us,” Hill added. “If you are going to make a run through the playoffs you are going to have to play really, really hard teams. I think (Western Illinois) is a great first-round opponent because they are just that. They are a really good, tough team, and they should prepare us for future success down the road.”
Three key matchups
- The turnover battle: WIU's +15 turnover margin is the fourth-best in the nation. The Leathernecks' 26 takeaways are sixth-highest nationally, and Western's 11 giveaways are the 10th-lowest in the FCS. In fact, the Leathernecks are outscoring opponents 96-17 in points off turnovers. Weber State is 13th in the nation in turnover margin at +10. Weber State has forced at least one turnover in nine games this season and has forced 14 turnovers in the last five-game winning streak.
- WIU offense vs. Weber State defense: On a national level, the Wildcats are 11th in the nation in scoring defense and have not given up more than 33 points in any game this season. In the nine wins, the Wildcats are holding opponents to an average of 13.3 points per game and have not given up more than 24 in any game. Weber State is also seventh in the country in interceptions with 16 on the season.
- The slow start: WIU has struggled early in games at times this season. That can't happen Saturday if the Leathernecks want to move to the second round of the playoffs.
WIU's postseason appearance is their second in the last three seasons, the program's best run of success since going to three playoffs in four campaigns from 2000-03. Only 13 FCS schools can boast more postseason appearances in their history than Western Illinois. During their last trip to the FCS Playoffs in 2015, the Leathernecks knocked off Dayton 24-7 on the road before succumbing at Illinois State 36-19 in the second round. Western Illinois is 7-10 (.412) all-time in the postseason.