Western Illinois faces another road test in playoff quest

Western Illinois faces another road test in playoff quest
Western linebacker Pete Swenson (50) is tied for the national leader in tackles for loss. (photo courtesy of the Globe Gazette)

Like much of its season, the Western Illinois Leathernecks' playoff hopes are teetering on the edge.

With two games left in the regular season, WIU must win out to make the FCS playoff field. Step one is Saturday when the Leathernecks play at South Dakota.

Western has built momentum, thanks to a three-game winning streak following a 2-4 start to the season.

Last weekend, the Leathernecks rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to edge rival Southern Illinois 34-31. It was WIU's first win in eight tries against the Salukis in Carbondale, dating back to 2000.

"There's a lot that we're going to learn from this game, and we've got to play a heck of a lot better, but what you can't replace is just the guts of this football team. I'll take that any day of the week," WIU head coach Jared Elliott said afterward. "I don't care how we look, as long as we get it done.

"We know we've got to clean some stuff up and get better in every phase of the game, but you can't fix guts. You can't fix finish, you can't fix guys that just believe and have an undeniable will, and sure enough, we hung in there, and good things happened." 

The thrilling comeback boosted Western to 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Leathernecks close out the regular season with a home game against Indiana State Nov. 17.

Behind enemy lines

Western linebacker Pete Swenson is tied for the FCS leader in tackles for loss (20.0), while also tying for third in sacks (11.0). 

The senior notched a season-high four tackles for loss against SIU. He is tied for seventh all-time in program history with 45.

Swenson also ranks fourth in the Leathernecks' history books with 24.5 career sacks. He's gotten his hands on the opposing quarterback in all but one game this season.

Swenson and defensive lineman Khalen Saunders have both been named to the Buck Buchanan watchlist. The Buchanan Award is presented to the national defensive player of the year in college football's Division I subdivision.

Familiar foe

South Dakota is coached by Bob Nielson, who served as WIU head coach from 2013 to 2015.

Nielson took the Leathernecks to the FCS playoffs in his final season in Macomb before leaving for USD.

Scouting the Coyotes

After starting conference play with a 2-0 record, South Dakota has dropped four straight games. The Coyotes feature quarterback Austin Simmons, the nation's ninth-leading passer at 290 yards per game.

Wide receiver Dakarai Allen is Simmons' top target, ranking fifth the MVFC with 675 yards. The Coyotes are the only Valley team with eight receivers with double-digit catches.

South Dakota set a school record with 39 first downs in last weekend's 54-51 triple overtime loss to Indiana State.

Defensively, the Coyotes showcase All-American end Darin Greenfield and all-conference safety Andrew Gray. Both players are listed on the Buchanan list as well.

Three key matchups

  1. WIU defense vs. USD offense:  Western lays claim to one of the best defenses in the MVFC, currently ranking third in the Valley, 21st in the nation, in total defense with 327.3 yards allowed per game. Simmons has averaged nearly 320 yards passing at home.
  2. WIU run game vs. USD defense:  While Sean McGuire has thrown for 300 or more yards four times this season, Western's fortunes Saturday may well rest with running backs Steve McShane and Max Norris. USD opponents have combined to run 153 times for 989 yards, which are averages of 330 yards per game at 6.5 yards per carry. They combined to pass 66 times for 505. USD has allowed just two 300-yard passers this season.
  3. Turnover battle:  All five Leatherneck victories this season have one common theme:  Western committed fewer turnovers than the opposition. Meanwhile, South Dakota was plus-8 in its first five games. The margin during its four-game slide is minus-four. The Coyotes have given up 73 points off turnovers this season.

The game

Western Illinois at South Dakota. Kickoff is 1 p.m. The game can be heard on the WIU radio network as well as viewed on ESPN+. 

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