New-look defense gives Western hope for turning over a new leaf

Western Illinois hits the road this week for a Missouri Valley Football Conference game at No. 8 South Dakota State. (Photo by Barry Bottino)

When Western Illinois opened its spring FCS season last week, the defense had nine new faces from its 2019 season finale.

Despite the changes, the unit impressed head coach Jared Elliott in a 30-24 loss to Missouri State.

“There were a lot of positives out of our defense,” he said. “Our defense created some game-changing plays and really sparked some life into us. … That third quarter says a heck of a lot about our defense.”

In 2019, the Leathernecks ranked last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in scoring defense and yards allowed per game.

In last week’s third quarter, WIU’s defense forced two punts and allowed only a field goal on 20 Missouri State snaps.

The high marks started at linebacker, where sophomore Herschel Blankenship had a game-high 10 tackles, including one of the team’s eight tackles for loss.

Fellow sophomore linebacker Greg Benton Jr. contributed seven tackles and ran a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown, the third-longest fumble return in school history.

Freshman cornerback Braylen Brooks had his first career interception and posted seven tackles.

The linebackers and WIU secondary face a tough task at 2 p.m. Saturday when they visit No. 8 South Dakota State in a Missouri Valley Football Conference game.

The Jackrabbits have the third-best passing offense in the league, led by true freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski of Naperville, who leads the MVFC in pass efficiency (141.7) and is averaging 251.5 yards a game. Sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Janke is averaging 5.5 receptions per game.

“We’ve been able to walk away from this football game and learn a lot as a team,” Elliott said. “Some of the lessons we were able to learn are going to help us and propel us going forward.”

That starts on offense, where two interceptions and two fumbles limited WIU’s drives.  Two holding penalties also negated a pair of Western touchdowns.

“Offensively, we can’t have the turnovers that we did,” Elliott said. “We’ve got to be a really smart football team.”

Catching on

In eight games last season, junior wide receiver Dennis Houston had 36 receptions for a team-best 539 yards.

Against Missouri State, he started off the season with a nine-catch effort for 71 yards and a touchdown. His best total in a game during the 2019 season was three catches.

Tough place to visit

Over the 24-year career of SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier, the Jackrabbits are 19-4 in home openers and have won nine in a row. Today’s game against WIU is South Dakota State’s spring 2021 home opener.

Where to watch

WIU’s trip to Brookings, S.D., will be broadcast at 2 p.m. on March 6 via ESPN+.

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