3 things we learned: Western offense sputters in loss at ISU

Western Illinois wide receiver Tony Tate gets tackled Saturday by a pair of Illinois State defenders in the Leathernecks’ 26-18 loss in Normal. (Photo courtesy GoRedbirds.com)

NORMAL — Scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns helped Western Illinois tighten the score Saturday against Illinois State.

What the Leathernecks did in the first three quarters, however, doomed them in a 26-18 Missouri Valley Football Conference loss at Hancock Stadium.

Western (0-4 overall, 0-4 MVFC) needed until late in the third quarter to successfully convert a third down and surpass 100 yards of total offense against the Redbirds (1-3, 1-3).

“Offensively, that first half was just not even close to being good enough,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott said. “I was very pleased that our guys battled back. They didn’t quit. But we’ve got to continue to get to a point where we execute at a consistent level, and we’re not doing that right now. We’ll keep working to get there.”

In nine first-half drives by WIU, the offense possessed the ball for an average of 1 minute, 9 seconds.

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about WIU in Saturday’s game:

  1. Third down falls flat

WIU started the game 0-for-11 on third downs and finished 2-for-14 for the game, which Elliott said is a shared responsibility. “It was a mixed bag,” Elliott said. “Third down is about us. Are we doing the right things in protection? Are we at the right depths? Are we throwing accurate balls? Are we catching balls, making plays? There’s a lot of moving pieces. That’s what makes offensive football so hard. You’ve got to get 11 guys working in harmony. Third down is the most glaring.”

For the season, Western has converted on 24.1% of its third-down plays (13-for-54).

2. Run game struggles

The Leathernecks used two running backs and three wide receivers in the run game Saturday, yet managed just 2.9 yards per carry. Freshman running back Iosefa Pua’auli led WIU with 31 yards on six carries.

On the flip slide, Illinois State rushed for 274 yards on 56 attempts (4.9 average). In the third quarter alone, the Redbirds rushed for 150 against WIU’s defense. “I think they were able to stay fresh,” Elliott said. “We weren’t. As the game went on, you could start to see that. We’ve still got to tackle better.”

3. Defensive gems arise

Western forced two first-half turnovers, but only created three points off of those ISU miscues. With 10 seconds remaining in the first quarter, sophomore defensive end Hunter Mason recovered a fumble by Illinois State quarterback Bryce Jefferson.

Four plays and 26 seconds later, junior kicker Mason Laramie hit a 53-yard field goal to close WIU’s deficit to 7-3. Three minutes later, Western free safety Michael Lawson made a diving interception of a Jefferson pass at Illinois State’s 42-yard line but WIU’s offense kept the ball less than 2 minutes before punting it away.

Lawson led all players with 13 tackles, while junior linebacker Cole Watts was credited with 2.5 sacks for Western.

News and notes

Laramie, a Schaumburg native, put his name in the WIU history books Saturday. His 53-yard field goal was the sixth-longest kick in school history. … On nine first-half drives, WIU started twice in ISU territory and four times at its own 37-yard line or better. Still, they managed three points. … Senior Dennis Houston caught a game-high seven passes, including one for a touchdown, for the Leathernecks. … Senior all-conference punter Adam Fellner had nine punts for a 43-yard average. He put five punts inside the ISU 20 and had two boots of 50 yards or better.

What’s up next?

Western Illinois hosts Northern Iowa at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 27 in Macomb.

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