Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott talked earlier this season about facing perhaps the FCS nation’s toughest non-conference schedule.
After all, the Leathernecks opened the season at Ball State, a member of the FBS’s Mid-American Conference.
WIU then followed by traveling to Montana, long one of the most challenging venues for a visiting team in FCS. The Leathernecks finally opened the home schedule by hosting Eastern Washington, a perennial playoff team. And, oh by the way, EWU and Montana are ranked second and fifth in this week’s STATS Perform FCS Top 25.
“Our boys are battle-tested with the schedule we have played to this point,” Elliott told Prairie State Pigskin in late September.
Though Western lost each of those first three games, the Leathernecks started Missouri Valley Football Conference play with a stirring 38-35 comeback victory at Youngstown State.
However, comebacks fell short in losses to nationally ranked Southern Illinois (31-30) and Indiana State (37-27).
Indiana State sacked Western quarterback Connor Sampson six times. The official stats state he was hurried 10 times.
“This was a story of negative plays for us on offense,” Elliott said Monday on his show that was posted on Twitter.
Sampson did throw for a career-best 449 passing yards. His 36 completions are the second-most in WIU history.
Seniors Dallas Daniels (career-high 143) and Tony Tate (109) both were over 100 yards receiving.
Things won’t get any easier. A glance down the remaining WIU schedule shows four Top 25-ranked teams in the remaining five games. And the one that isn’t comes against in-state rival Illinois State.
This week’s game has WIU hosting South Dakota State, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation just a week ago. The Jackrabbits — the national runner-up in the spring FCS season — lost 42-41 to Southern Illinois last weekend.
Ironically, SIU stopped SDSU’s two-point conversion attempt to pull out the victory. A week earlier SIU did the same, stopping Western’s two-point attempt to preserve a 31-30 win.
The loss dropped South Dakota State five spots in the STATS Perform FCS poll to No. 7. Yet, the Jackrabbits remain as dangerous as ever.
Senior running back Pierre Strong rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the defeat. His second TD came on an 85-yard run.
SDSU racked up 559 total yards on 61 plays (9.2 average). However, three turnovers — including the first two interceptions of the season thrown by transfer quarterback Chris Oladokun — helped turn the game’s fortunes.
Defensively, the Jackrabbits scored on a 97-yard fumble return by Malik Lofton. Yet, SDSU yielded 546 yards on 85 plays to Southern Illinois.
News & notes
Saturday’s game begins a stretch in which Western will play at home three of the next four games . . . WIU sophomore running back Ludovick Choquette has a streak of scoring a receiving touchdown in each of the last four games . . . Leatherneck senior Dennis Houston leads the FCS with 49 receptions for 687 yards (14-yard average) . . . Quarterback Connor Sampson ranks fourth nationally with 1,861 passing yards. Sampson has thrown for 16 touchdowns, five of which have gone to Houston.
Where to find the game
South Dakota State (4-1, 1-1) at Western Illinois (1-5, 1-2) Saturday, Oct. 16. Kickoff at noon. The game can be found on ESPN+ and on WIU’s Mixlr.com home page.