First-ever North Dakota road trip brings no surprises for Western Illinois football team

Western Illinois senior wide receiver Dennis Houston (10) leads the nation this week with 9.0 receptions per game. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)

Western Illinois is making its first-ever trip this weekend to Grand Forks, N.D., to face the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s newest member.

But playing the University of North Dakota brings no surprises, according to WIU head coach Jared Elliott.

“The identity of most teams doesn’t really change in this league,” Elliott said during his weekly coach’s show. “This is a tough offense to defend. They are going to hit you in a lot of ways, and it all starts in the run game.”

Despite missing preseason All-American running back Otis Weah last week against Southern Illinois, the Fighting Hawks inserted freshman Isaiah Smith, who promptly rushed for 111 yards in a 31-28 loss to Southern Illinois and won MVFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

As a team, North Dakota (2-4) is off to an 0-3 start in the conference – having lost by a combined 16 points to three ranked teams – after being ranked itself in the preseason Top 10 nationally.

“They’ve got a really physical and athletic offensive line,” Elliott said. “You can’t take the average play for granted against these guys.”

For Western (1-6 overall, 1-3 MVFC), their start to last week’s loss against No. 6 South Dakota State was anything but average.

The Leathernecks, who have been plagued by slow starts, scored 10 first-half points and trailed only 14-10 at half. For the season, the first two quarters of games have been Western’s lowest scoring outputs. The WIU defense has yielded 63% of its total points allowed for the season to opponents in the first half.

“I was really proud of how our guys came out to start the football game,” Elliott said. “We created some negative plays early in the game that really helped. There was a lot of good in that first half.”

News and notes

Three WIU players lead the nation in various statistical categories this week. Senior wide receiver Dennis Houston leads FCS in receptions per game with 9.0. On defense senior safeties Michael Lawson and Darius Joiner are No. 1 in solo tackles (52) and total tackles (86), respectively. … Senior quarterback Connor Sampson needs only 26 yards passing to set a new personal career high. Sampson, who leads the MVFC in passing yards (2,068) and completions per game (28.57), threw for 2,092 yards in 2019. … This will be the third meeting all-time between WIU and North Dakota. UND beat Western in the spring FCS season, 38-21.

Where to catch the game

The WIU road game at North Dakota kicks off at 2 p.m. and will air on ESPN-Plus online. The radio call is available on WIU’s Mixlr.com home page.

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