Two close losses at the end of the season kept Western Illinois out of the FCS playoffs.
A promising start to the season was lost thanks to two defeats by a total of seven points.
Along with solving their November struggles, the Leathernecks will have to replace three-year starting quarterback Sean McGuire, one of the program’s most respected and well-liked players, during the 2019 offseason.
On defense, ultra-productive lineman Khalen Saunders will get a shot at an NFL camp.
The pass rush also loses a key piece in national FCS tackles for loss leader Pete Swenson.
Here are five burning questions for the Leathernecks for 2019:
1. Can anyone replace the leadership of Sean McGuire?
He connected teammates and bonded with them. He earned the trust and admiration of coaches. He filled reporters’ notebooks with thoughtful, honest answers.
In his five years in Macomb, quarterback Sean McGuire made an immense impact on the field as well, ending his career as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (9,819) and passing touchdowns (72).
He started the final four games of his redshirt freshman season and never gave up the job.
“He’s a very unique and special young man, and I’ve never coached anyone like him,” Western head coach Jared Elliott said in October.
Losing a three-year starter at a critical position is an adjustment.
Michigan native Connor Sampson, who will be a junior in the fall, was McGuire’s backup this season and should get an opportunity to take over.
2. Where does the defensive front go without Khalen Saunders and Pete Swenson?
Saunders, a three-year starter on the defensive line, is the first player in WIU history to be invited to the Senior Bowl, and he was a finalist for the FCS Buck Buchanan Award, given to the national defensive player of the yar. An athletic, nimble playmaker at 310 pounds, Saunders earned second-team Associated Press FCS All-America honors this week thanks to 13 tackles for loss.
Swenson, a fellow senior, gave the Leathernecks’ defense a major boost this fall, leading the nation with 24.5 tackles for loss and ranking third with 14.5 sacks. He earned third-team All-America recognition.
So what does WIU do without them?
On the defensive line, the combination of sophomore starters Kyle Williams and Shabar Wilson at end combined for 8.5 sacks and will by key to keep the pass rush revved up. Junior college transfer LaCale London has 3.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs as a reserve.
At outside linebacker, WIU will need some new faces to take over Swenson’s massive impact.
3. How can WIU avoid its November struggles?
Over the last three years, the Leathernecks are 4-6 in November as the FCS playoffs approach. This season, a 5-4 record and a potential playoff berth disintegrated after tight losses to South Dakota (17-12) and Indiana State (15-13).
In one game, WIU managed only 10 first downs. In the other, the Leathernecks gained only 272 yards of total offense. Staying on the field and extending drives is paramount in close games, which is something the Leathernecks struggled to do in their final two games.
Getting back to the FCS playoffs will count on making November a month to remember.
4. How will the running game rebound?
This was the biggest head-scratching result for Western this season.
A team with senior do-everything back Steve McShane, powerful runner Max Norris and the versatile Clint Ratkovitch managed to finish last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at 99 rushing yards a game.
A revamped offensive line that lost several key starters from 2017 could be a reason for the results.
But in 2019, the Leathernecks must make running the football a bigger priority.
Their young offensive line will be a year older and Norris and Ratkovitch, an important pass-catching threat return. The Leathernecks will need to find a capable helper for Norris to shoulder some of the load.
5. Is the next Jaelon Acklin waiting to appear?
As a senior in 2017, Acklin had a breakout season with 84 receptions and 10 touchdowns from his wide receiver spot.
In three previous seasons combined, he had caught 21 balls.
Will the next Acklin appear in August when WIU opens the season at North Alabama?
Maybe not right away, considering a new quarterback will be at the helm. But the options are aplenty on the WIU roster.
In an injury-plagued 2018 season, sophomore Tony Tate averaged nearly 21 yards a catch, while junior college transfer John Brunner immediately contributed 34 catches and three touchdowns.
Out of the backfield, sophomore Clint Ratkovitch was the leader on the team with 50 receptions. But an outside threat is definitely in need.