Penguins marching to Macomb

Redshirt+freshman+receiver+Stacey+Smith+%2813%29+has+261+receiving+yards+and+three+touchdowns+on+the+season.

Nicholas Stewart

Redshirt freshman receiver Stacey Smith (13) has 261 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season.

Cody Rivera, Sports Editor

No team in the Missouri Valley Football Conference can be
taken lightly.

Not even a team such as the Youngstown State Penguins, who have lost their last three games after beating South Dakota in their conference opener.

“A lot of teams that come off of losing streaks always try to bring their best bet to the next game,” said Stacey Smith, a freshman wide receiver for
Western Illinois.

He and the rest of the Leathernecks expect nothing less than another tough challenge when they play the Penguins at Hanson Field on Saturday.

“We feel like they’re going to be real aggressive to try to get a ‘W’ at a tough away game that they really need,” Smith continued.

And at the same time, the Leathernecks (4-3, 3-1 in MVFC play) are heavily looking for a ‘W’ as well.

The Illinois State Redbirds, the only undefeated team remaining in the MVFC, gave Western its first conference defeat last week in Normal, Illinois. That game capped off a two-game road trip for the Leathernecks, and they’re looking forward to getting back on their home turf again.

“You’ve got to rebound,” said Leathernecks head coach Bob Nielson. “You’ve got to put that game behind you. There are certainly some things that we can learn from that; a lot of areas that we can do better. And that’s what we have to focus on
this week.”

And running back Nikko Watson agreed with Smith — teams currently on a losing streak often have a chip on their shoulder.

“It’s going be a huge challenge because they’re going to ready to go,” Watson said. “They’re ready to turn their season around. Basically we have to accept that challenge. We have come out to play every week.”

Western’s run game, including Watson, wasn’t as explosive against Illinois State as it has been in previous games. Watson was held to just 53 rushing yards — the first time all season that he accumulated less than 115.

He’s not concerned though. He expects the running game will get back on track this week.

“We just have to be healthy,” Watson said. “That’s the number one thing. Everybody has to be healthy and we’ll be ready to go.”

Even though the Penguins (3-4, 1-3) have lost three straight games — including a heartbreaking overtime loss at Southern Illinois last week after the Salukis rallied in the fourth quarter — they currently rank second nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game with 118.

It won’t have an effect on Western’s game plan though, which has relied heavily on the passing game in recent weeks. Smith, who has 261 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season, is confident that quarterback Trenton Norvell will put them in position to succeed.

“We’re just going to try to do the same thing we do everyday,” Smith said. “Trenton is going to give us opportunities to make plays on the ball, and we’re going to do our thing that we’ve always been doing.”

Confidence has never been an issue for this young team, but when you have Smith combined with the dual threat of fellow receivers Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino, it’s hard not to be confident.

“We feel like we’re the best receiving core in the conference,” Smith said.

The Leathernecks are coming into the game ranked 23rd in the STATS FCS Poll, dropping from 20th after losing to Illinois State. The Penguins, meanwhile, are ranked 25th.

Even though his team may be considered the favorite for the first time this year, Nielson knows better than to read too heavily into those things.

“(Youngstown State) is a really good football team,” Nielson said. “They could easily be undefeated in the league if you look at their scores and how they’ve lost. They’re a team that has really good personnel; they’re well coached. It’s going to be a game that we’re going to have to play our best football and execute better than we did last week against Illinois State.”