Battle for first place

Quarterback Trenton Norvell says playing at Illinois State will make for a difficult road environment.

Cody Rivera

Every game is important, and then at the same time, there are games that will never be forgotten by the athletes that played in them.

Those games only come along every once in a while, such as when a pair of undefeated in-state conference rivals get the opportunity to meet on the gridiron with the stakes elevated to their peak.

The members of the Western Illinois football team know that they are getting one of those games on Saturday.

“It’s a big weekend for us,” said quarterback Trenton Norvell. “We’ve just got to carry on with the momentum we’ve had in the last couple of games and continue to go execute plays.”

Saturday will be a matchup of two teams roaring with momentum, as the 20th-ranked Leathernecks will meet the third-ranked Illinois State Redbirds in Normal, Illinois, with the winner set to take over first place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC).

“This is a huge game for us; we’re in the heart of the season,” said defensive lineman Eddy Holtschlag. “We want to keep taking those steps forward and get that first place spot, and then keep that first place spot throughout the whole season.”

The Leathernecks (4-2, 3-0 in MVFC play) put themselves in this position by starting conference play 3-0, and by picking up a 24-19 upset win over formerly 12th-ranked Northern Iowa on the road last week.

“We’ve won some close games and beat some good teams,” said head coach Bob Nielson. “And now you get an opportunity to play in a game that has a significant amount of bearing, not just on the current conference standings, but also on the future conference standings.”

Illinois State (5-1, 3-0) is likely to be Western’s toughest challenge of the season to this point. The Redbirds lost in week one to the 7-0 Iowa Hawkeyes, and since then, they have not been defeated.

ISU steamrolled Missouri State 38-2 on the road last week — a game in which Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson passed for 304 yards and three touchdowns, and wide receiver Anthony Warrum hauled in 194 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

“They’re an explosive offensive football team,” Nielson said. “That will be part of the challenge defensively. We’ll have to contain their offense and minimize the number of explosive plays. The flipside of that is offensively we need to find ways to move the ball with some consistency and score points when opportunities arise.

“It will be that kind of game where every possession will be important.”

With the Leathernecks and Redbirds both being in the state of Illinois, and also being less than two hours apart, there has been plenty of rivalry between the two teams in the past. It’s the most-played series in Western Illinois history, and the Leathernecks lead the all-time series 50-43-3.

But the Redbirds have had the most recent laughs, especially after Western blew a 27-6 third quarter lead at Hanson Field last year, and a last-second field goal put ISU over the top 37-34.

However, there is much more on the line this time around, which has elevated the intensity of
this rivalry.

“If we’re playing anyone for first place, it’s always a big deal,” said wide receiver Joey Borsellino. “But I think it’s awesome that it’s Illinois State. I don’t think I would want to play any other team in this conference to become the sole leader in first place.”

Borsellino said it’s about time the rivalry turns in Western’s favor.

“They’ve been really good the last few years and we haven’t had as much success as we wanted,” Borsellino said. “I think it’s time we turned it around and show that we’re the best FCS program in Illinois.”

Norvell agrees that this rivalry has new meaning knowing that only one team can continue forward undefeated and at the top of the MVFC. He also knows that getting a win at Hancock Stadium won’t be easy.

“It brings (the rivalry) up a lot,” Norvell said. “We’re fighting for first place. ISU is a good team. Going to their home field, it’ll be a hard place to play.”

But the Leathernecks aren’t intimidated. They know they are a team that the rest of the MVFC needs to watch out for, and ending Illinois State’s five-game win streak would help make that message clear.

“The win would definitely help us, especially getting that number one spot in the conference,” Holtschlag said. “Hopefully we get that message across that we’re not here to play games.”

Twitter: @CodyRivera33