Nikko Watson’s (41) one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter helped the Leathernecks to a 24-19 win against No. 12 Northern Iowa.

Cody Rivera

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — A slow start to the season didn’t seem to faze the Western Illinois football team.

The Leathernecks started the regular season 1-2, but since Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) play began, it’s been anything but slow. Three weeks in, they still haven’t lost a game.

Western kept the undefeated streak going on Saturday night, hanging on to beat Northern Iowa 24-19 at the UNI-Dome, and moving into a tie with Illinois State for first place in the conference.

“It feels great,” said running back Nikko Watson. “We worked all year long to put ourselves in this position.”

It was more than just a win. It was a win against a nationally ranked team, as the Panthers were ranked 12th coming into the game.

“It’s a win over a really good football program,” said Leathernecks head coach Bob Nielson. “They’re a good football team; they’re well-coached. I’m really proud of the way our guys executed today, and made plays in critical times to find a way to win.”

The Leathernecks (4-2, 3-0 in MVFC play) pieced together an explosive performance on offense in the first half, but not before Aaron Diggs put them on the board by returning an interception 95 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Already up 7-0, the offense reeled off a pair of touchdown drives.

Watson picked up the first offensive touchdown with a one-yard rush at the 2:14 mark in the first quarter, stretching the lead to 14-0.

“UNI has a great defense and a great team,” said Watson, who finished with 115 yards on 35 carries. “We just played better than them for four quarters. It’s going to show a lot of people what we can do.”

The Leathernecks added another touchdown with 5:45 left in the half, when quarterback Trenton Norvell found Joey Borsellino for a nine-yard score, making it a 21-3 lead for Western.

For yet another week, Nielson was impressed by his junior signal caller, who threw for 265 yards in the game.

“He’s a good football player,” Nielson said. “He gets better with more experience playing in physical games like this.”

Despite leading 21-6 at halftime, the Leathernecks were forced to endure a vicious attack by the Panthers (2-4, 0-3) in the second half.

A pick six by Deiondre Hall and a five-yard touchdown rush by UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey pulled the Panthers back into the game with 6:35 remaining, cutting the lead down to 21-19.

Bailey was the second quarterback Western had to deal with, as Sawyer Kollmorgen was under center for Northern Iowa in the first half.

“You still have to play the same,” said linebacker Brett Taylor, who came away with 12 total tackles. “Just know who’s out there.”

A 40-yard reception by Lance Lenoir moved the Leathernecks within the five-yard line, and Nathan Knuffman tacked on a 23-yard field goal to make it a 24-19 lead for Western. That left the Panthers with 3:18 to get into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown.

But strong safety David Griffith had other ideas.

“The big thing this week was ‘believe in ourselves,’” Griffith said. “We believed in ourselves all the way to the end of the fourth quarter.”

With plenty of belief in himself, Griffith all but sealed the game by intercepting Bailey at Northern Iowa’s 36-yard line.

“It was an awesome experience, and I think our defense was really ready for it,”  Griffith said.

Even after pulling off a 3-0 start to MVFC play, Griffith and the Leathernecks aren’t getting too caught up in the excitement — especially with a showdown for first place coming next week against No. 4 Illinois State.

“It’s just another win for us,” Griffith said about beating Northern Iowa. “We’re going to go back tomorrow, get ready to watch our mistakes, correct those, and get ready for Illinois State next week.”

Twitter: @CodyRivera33