3 things we learned: Penalties, turnovers sink Western Illinois

3 things we learned: Penalties, turnovers sink Western Illinois
Greg Benton Jr. returned a fumble 75 yards to tie the game in the second quarter. (photo courtesy WIU Athletics)

Western Illinois last played a football game Nov. 23, 2019. Saturday’s 30-24 loss to Missouri State resembled much of the time in between.

As with life in the pandemic world, WIU experienced its share of highs and lows in the defeat that opened this spring’s eight-game Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.

“It’s been a long, long road and a long journey for these guys,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott said in the postgame press conference. “Obviously I was wanting a different result for these kids because they deserve it. I’m extremely proud how hard our guys played. That wasn’t the issue today. Our issue today was like any first game, especially a first game when you haven’t played in so long. We’ve got to eliminate self-inflicted wounds.”

While Western’s record stands at 0-1, Missouri State won for the first time under new head coach Bobby Petrino after losing all three games the Bears played in the fall.

Three things we learned:

  1. Penalties and turnovers continue to decide games

Two of the key statistical categories loomed large.

Western Illinois and Missouri State combined for 17 penalties for 138 yards and seven turnovers.

“Extremely frustrating,” Elliott said. “I know we had two touchdowns called back (on penalties) and the one, if not the third, was on the one- or two-yard line. Very frustrating.”

Yet, the Leathernecks still had a chance to pull off a comeback. On the final drive, WIU drove to the Missouri State 41-yard line. However, starting quarterback and team captain Connor Sampson left the field with an injury.

Backup Henry Ogala stepped in and threw a 40-yard completion to Dennis Houston only to have it negated by a holding penalty called on Michael Ross.

“Way too many penalties,” Elliott said.

On the next snap, Missouri State stripped the ball from Ogala and recovered to effectively end the game.

“We turned the ball over at some very costly moments,” Elliott said.

2. Big plays produce big results

The game featured big plays on both sides.

After falling into a 14-0 deficit, WIU rallied to tie the game. Linebacker Greg Benton Jr. scooped up a fumble and raced 75 yards for a second quarter Leatherneck score.

Greg Benton Jr.

Greg Benton Jr.

“I could go on about Greg for days, but that man is all heart,” teammate Herschel Blankenship said.

Schaumburg native and transfer Mason Laramie nailed a 45-yard field to give Western a 17-14 halftime lead.

After receiver Tony Tate scored on a two-yard run with 7:56 remaining in the game, WIU held a 24-20 lead.

Things looked even better for Western when Missouri State misplayed the ensuing kickoff return and then suffered a snap infraction. The Bears faced a first-and-14 inside their own five-yard line. WIU followed by stopping quarterback Jaden Johnson cold on a read option.

Yet, momentum and field position changed as Johnson found Damoriea Vick for a 67-yard reception into Western territory. Moments later, 6-foot-7 Issac Smith snatched a pass between two WIU defenders and then raced into the end zone with the game-deciding touchdown. The Bears later added a field goal.

3.  Field position matters

Western spent most of the third quarter mired deep in its own territory. In fact, Adam Fellner punted from his own end zone on three consecutive possessions.

That situation was set up after WIU was called for “an invalid fair catch signal” following a Missouri State field goal, according to Elliott.

Missouri State held WIU in check and forced the Fellner punts.

“The third quarter was tough,” Elliott said. “We put our defense in some really bad spots, and they played their tails off. We had at least three possessions, if not four, backed up inside the 10 and couldn’t get a first down. We weren’t able to do that and really lost almost a quarter there.”

News and notes:  WIU’s final drive wasn’t helped by the fact the Leathernecks had only one timeout. Western burned two timeouts  one of special teams and one on defense  in the third quarter . . . Before departing with his injury, Sampson was 34-for-46 for 281 yards. He passed for one touchdown but also threw two interceptions . . . Houston had nine catches for 71 yards and a TD . . . Tate, a DeKalb native, had 161 total yards (69 receiving, 89 returning, 3 rushing) . . . Blankenship led Western with 10 tackles, eight solo.

What’s next?

Western travels to nationally ranked South Dakota State March 6.

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