On a Thursday night in August in Alabama, the Western Illinois football stumbled to ta 26-17 loss against North Alabama.
For the Leathernecks, who beat two ranked teams in 2018, the losses in 2019 just kept coming. During a 1-11 season, WIU endured injuries, defensive lapses, offensive struggles and an 0-8 start.
Turning the calendar was likely a welcome change for Western head coach Jared Elliott and the Leathernecks.
Here are five important questions facing WIU in 2020:
- Can the Leathernecks fix their defense?
Western’s defense took its lumps in 2019, giving up Missouri Valley Football Conference highs of 57 touchdowns, along with 470 yards and 36.9 points a game. The Leatherneck need a pumped-up pass rush as well since they had 17 sacks in 12 games. Eight other teams had at least 10 more sacks than WIU. Injuries certainly played a role, but the defense was on the field way too much. The WIU offense ranked 123rd in the nation among 124 FCS teams in time of possession per game with 25 minutes, 50 seconds.
- Will Western solve its turnover troubles?
The Leathernecks, by far, had the worst turnover margin in conference at minus-17. They also averaged an FCS-low minus-1.42 turnovers a game. Along with 14 interceptions from three different passers, ball security was a big issue as the team lost 17 fumbles. Perhaps a big reason for the turnover struggles was the fact that seven players had at least 24 carries because of a spate of injuries in the running back group.
- Will WIU’s offensive playmakers rebound?
The biggest play from the banged-up running back group was a 42-yard run by Kendon Walker, who entered the transfer portal at midseason. Senior Max Norris, who played in only five games because of injuries, had the second-longest run at 36 yards. On the ground, do-it-all running back Clint Ratkovich returns, along with his team-high 57 receptions. He will play a big role in the offense along with returning QB Connor Sampson, who completed nearly 61 percent of his passes despite throwing only 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Four of the team’s top five wide receivers are back in 2020, including Dennis Houston and his nearly 15 yards per catch.
- What position group will lead the defense?
The secondary includes several key returnees that should give Western’s defense a lift? Though the team’s top three tacklers will all be gone next season, strong safety Demetri Royer (74 tackles), cornerback Mike Viti (74 tackles, two forced fumbles) and cornerback Marquis Smith (12 pass breakups) are all back.
- Are the Leathernecks done with the injury bug?
When it wasn’t a battered and bruised running back group, it was the wide receivers. Then it was the quarterback and offensive line. Enough is enough for WIU. Getting healthy before spring practice is a high priority so the Leathernecks get some momentum going into the 2020 season.