No. 4 Montana offers big test for improving Leathernecks

Connor Sampson and the WIU offense hung with FBS Ball State for three quarters last weekend in its season-opening game. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)

A week after hanging with an FBS team for three quarters, the Western Illinois football team will face a Montana program that pulled off one of the biggest FCS vs. FBS upsets in recent years.

At 7 p.m. Saturday, the Leathernecks travel to Missoula to face the Grizzlies, who defeated Washington, ranked No. 20 by one preseason FBS poll, 13-7, in Seattle.

“They physically dominated that football game,” WIU coach Jared Elliott said on his weekly coaches show. “We’re playing a better football team in Montana than what we just played. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Western provided its own excitement in a 31-21 loss against defending Mid-American Conference champion Ball State. The Leathernecks outgained BSU, 437-404, and trailed by only seven points after three quarters.

“Obviously, I walked away very proud of how our kids competed and battled throughout all four quarters,” Elliott said. “There’s no question this is a much-improved football team. We had plenty of opportunities to do what we expected to do, and that was to win the game. Week 1 to Week 2, there’s a lot of maturation that can happen with a football team.

“We need that in a lot of areas for us to get to where we want to go,” he said.

The biggest areas of growth needed are third-down efficiency on offense and limiting big plays on defense.

Western (0-1) was 3-for-13 on third down in the game and punted on four of its first five drives.

“We’ve got to find a way to go out there and be more consistent,” Elliott said. “Third downs are glaring. It took us a little while to get into a groove. There’s no questions we wanted a faster start on offense than what we did. … You’ve got to stay on the field to finish drives.”

Despite the early stumbles, senior quarterback Connor Sampson threw for 367 yards and two touchdowns, with senior wide receiver Dennis Houston posting a career day with 12 catches for 237 yards and two touchdowns.

On defense, Western allowed scoring plays of 49, 48 and 21 yards.

“Half of their yardage came off of explosive plays,” said Elliott, whose team allowed 220 rushing yards.

Ranked opponent

Montana jumped five spots in this week’s national poll – from ninth to fourth – after beating Washington.

Montana got the job done on defense, limited Washington to 65 rushing yards and grabbing three interceptions.

Defensive standout

Senior defensive back Michael Lawson picked up where he left off during his impactful spring season.

In the fall season opener at Ball State, Lawson compiled a game-high 14 tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered a fumble and broke up a pass.

“He has that emotional edge to him and plays with a lot of tenacity,” Elliott said.

The WIU coach noted that his team showed an improvement in tackling against Ball State.

Winning up front

Sampson completed 30 passes and was sacked twice and hurried only once.

Elliott credited the offensive line of senior transfers DeJohn Jones (Prairie View A&M) and Will Waddell (Grambling), junior transfer Yoesph Carter (Jackson State), junior Brandon Malkow and sophomore Matt Muetterties.

While Jones and Carter were making their first starts for WIU, Malkow is the most experienced with 13 career starts, followed by Waddell (seven) and Muetterties (six).

“The more that those five guys play together and build that harmony, the better we’re going to be,” Elliott said. “They did a good job keeping Connor clean. We weren’t pressured very often. We put a step forward in the right direction, especially on our offensive line.”

Where to find the game

The Leathernecks kick off at 7 p.m. in a game that airs on ESPN-Plus online. The radio call is available online at mixlr.com/wiu-athletics.

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