MACOMB—Even in a season in which his team has yet to win a game, Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott isn't about morale victories.
"They have an undeniable will to win even though we haven't. Our guys understand there are no moral victories. We expected to win that game. Our entire locker room expected to win that game, and we didn't, so we're upset, and we're hurt about it," Elliott said following his team's 28-14 loss to rival and nationally ranked Illinois State Saturday at Hanson Field.
Half of No. 10 ISU's points were scored on takeaways. The Redbirds took just two plays to take a 7-0 lead after a WIU fumble on the opening series and never relinquished the lead in the Missouri Valley Football Conference contest.
The defeat keeps the Leathernecks winless at 0-7 overall and 0-3 in the MVFC. Illinois State is 5-2 overall and 2-1 in conference games.
"I'm stunned that they're 0-7," said ISU head coach Brock Spack. "Disregard the record. Just watch the film. You'll see they have good players. I can't believe they're going to go the whole season without a win, because they're a good football team."
Here are three things we learned in Western's loss:
1. WIU switched to an uptempo offense.
Following last weekend's loss at Indiana State, Elliott and his staff made the decision to revamp the Leatherneck offense.
Saturday's game against Illinois State featured a WIU attack that went uptempo.
"I thought our kids handled it really well," Elliott said in the postgame, noting that the team only had three days of preparation."We put a lot on our players . . . it's a credit to our players . . . it worked, we moved the ball, but it didn't work enough to win."
Western ran 86 plays compared to 58 for Illinois State. WIU outgained ISU 375-279 and garnered more first downs (24-15).
The uptempo offense did help Western to combat Illinois State's defense, the national FCS leader in sacks. A week after the Redbirds racked up nine sacks against Southern Illinois, ISU managed three against Western.
"I think it caught them off guard a bit," versatile junior running back Clint Ratkovich said. "Once we got rolling, it really started clicking for us."
Quarterback Connor Sampson said, "If you look at the past, that's where a lot of our big plays come from, the uptempo. It was a key factor of what we did today on offense."
2. Turnovers were the major difference between winning and losing.
Western turned the ball over five times, something that makes any game difficult to win but especially challenging against a playoff-caliber nationally ranked opponent.
The Leathernecks coughed up three fumbles and threw two interceptions.
"We can't turn the ball over; we've got to finish drives," Elliott said.
A key turnover — and most likely the one that impacted the game the most — came early in the second quarter. Trailing 7-0, Western defensive back Eric Carrera intercepted ISU's Brady Davis and returned it to the Redbird 25-yard line. Three plays later, WIU had the ball second-and-goal on the ISU two-yard line.
Leatherneck wide receiver Tony Tate took a reverse from Sampson and then attempted to throw to his quarterback in the end zone. The pass, however, was underthrown and Illinois State defensive back Devin Taylor intercepted and returned the ball to the ISU 43.
"It's on me, it is. It's on me," Elliott said of the play call. "Didn't put our guys in a good situation there."
The turnovers took their toll on the WIU defense.
"What hurt us is we put our defense in really bad spots today over and over again," Elliott said.
3. Western found fresh legs in the running game.
With veterans Max Norris and Victavious Johnson out with severe injuries, Ratkovich racked up a season-high 93 receiving yards and 138 all-purpose yards.
Western also found success with youth. True freshman Jordan Schippers and redshirt freshman DeShon Gavin saw their first extensive carries out of the backfield this season.
Schippers, a four-year letterman at Colby (Kan.) High School, rushed for 40 yards on nine carries. Gavin, a Joliet native who prepped at Providence Catholic High School, ran 10 times for 28 yards and a touchdown.
"I thought they did a really good job," Elliott said. "We challenged them, and both of those guys were able to bring us something today in productivity in not only the run game but they did a tremendous job in protection."
Sampson said, "For them to learn that [offensive change] is pretty impressive."
Sampson reached career highs in completions (34) and attempts (50) as he threw for 270 yards and a touchdown.
Western also started a true freshman (Josiah Rowland) at left guard, a redshirt freshman at right guard (Brandon Malkow) and a redshirt freshman (Jack Whyte) at tight end. Whyte is a Glenbard West High School graduate.
"We're young. We've got a bunch of young guys that are fighting and playing ball," Elliott said. "I think they're getting better and getting more confidence."
Despite the youth in its line, Western did not have a holding penalty Saturday against one of the nation's top FCS defenses.
Western continues its conference schedule Saturday, Oct. 26 with a road game at Youngstown State. Southern Illinois upset the Penguins 35-10 Saturday.