It’s time to go ‘all in’ on this team

Lance Lenoir surpasses 2,000 career receiving yards against UNI.

Cody Rivera

OK, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to buy in.

Some, if not most of you, have probably done so already, and you’ve had good reason to. But I’m known as “the pessimist” to all of my sports friends because I constantly expect the worst from the teams that I want to do well.

When it comes to Western Illinois sports teams, it gets taken to an entirely new level. In my three-plus years covering the football and basketball teams, I’ve known nothing but disappointment, year after year. If there’s not a mid-season collapse, there are heartbreaking losses in postseason tournaments, or crushing defeats in pivotal games in which victory is all
but necessary.

It’s been the same story every year that I’ve been here, over and over again.

That’s why I’m always so hesitant to show confidence in these teams, because I’m looking out for my emotional well-being (I know I’m not supposed to show favoritism as a member of the media, and I do my best not too, but I’m still human and I want to see my school’s
teams succeed). I want to save myself from heartbreak somewhere down
the road.

But this 2015 Leatherneck football team is different. I’m ready to buy into this team, because this team could do something special.

This team is three games into Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) play, the most demanding conference in all of FCS football, and each time they’ve managed to find a way to win. Whether it’s been via a last-second field goal or a game-sealing interception, each time the Leathernecks (4-2, 3-0 in MVFC play) have come out on top.

None of their victories, however, were more impressive than last week’s — a 24-19 win over the previously 12th-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers.

“It’s a huge win for our program,” said linebacker Brett Taylor, who was recently named MVFC Defensive Player of the Week. “We’re trying to take it one week at a time. Any time you go 3-0 in conference is a great thing. We’ve just got to use this momentum to keep moving forward.”

Guess what?

Now the Leathernecks are nationally ranked. They were placed at 23 in the FCS Coaches Poll, and 20 in the STATS FCS Poll.

And speaking of momentum, now is a pretty good time to have it on their side. This MVFC schedule continues to get tougher, and this week poses what will be Western’s biggest matchup to date — a face-off with the also-undefeated Illinois State Redbirds, and the winner will claim sole possession of first place in the MVFC.

How about that for a meaningful game, eh?

Just like the rest of these Leathernecks, the soft-spoken Lance Lenoir is keeping his excitement on the down low, as per usual.

“We’re happy to be in this position,” said Lenoir, who surpassed 2,000 career receiving yards against Northern Iowa. “We’re just taking it one game at a time and we’re moving forward.”

The Redbirds are ranked fourth nationally. They were runners-up in the MVFC Championship game last season. They are 5-1 overall this season. Their only loss was to the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, who are seemingly running away with the Big Ten, in their season opener on the road.

Since then, they haven’t lost, and like Western, they are 3-0 in the MVFC coming into this game.

A few weeks ago, we looked at this game on the schedule, and thought “Let’s just hope we don’t get blown out.”

We couldn’t have guessed that first place in the MVFC would be on the line, and that Western and ISU would be the only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference.

But that’s where we’re at now. We went from just not wanting to get blown out to feeling like we have a chance to win. It certainly won’t be easy by any means, but it’s no longer hopeless.

“Every week, you’re going to have to reload and play somebody that’s high quality,” said Bob Nielson, the third-year head coach of the Leathernecks. “And you’re going to have to play your best football or you’ll get beat. Next week we’ve got a great challenge; another outstanding team in
Illinois State.”

Hundreds of people in Illinois have recently taken to using the hashtag #WeAreGood when referencing a popular baseball team around this area. It might be time we started doing the same when referencing The Leathernecks.

Why? Because this team is good.

Twitter: @CodyRivera33