DAYTON, Ohio – One thing stood out at Welcome Stadium on Saturday, and that was defense.
The Western Illinois football team allowed seven points to the Dayton Flyers in the first quarter, and then didn’t let them touch the scoreboard again.
“Our game plan was set,” said defensive lineman Gavin Ricketts. “We spent a lot of time focusing on their formations and their alignments, knowing where the ball was going to hit.”
The Leathernecks defeated Dayton 24-7 in the first round of the FCS playoffs, moving to 9-0 all-time against Pioneer League teams – and turnovers played a big part in it. Western intercepted the Flyers three times in the game, and scored 14 points off of turnovers.
“We knew the red zone game was going to be important, just like it is every game,” said defensive lineman Pete Swenson, who sacked Dayton quarterback Alex Jeske four times in the game. “Especially against a good team like them, who weren’t going to have many mistakes. So it was just up to us to capitalize and do our job individually, and that’s just what we did.”
Head coach Bob Nielson enjoyed watching his team get it turned around after a slow start.
“I’m very proud of the way our guys played in the second half,” Leathernecks head coach Bob Nielson said. “We struggled in the first half both offensively and defensively, but I thought we really took control of the game with our defense in the second half, and moved the ball effectively enough to put some points on the board.”
However, it did take some time for Western (7-5) to get points flowing. The Leathernecks were shut out in the first quarter, as the Dayton secondary made it very difficult on Western’s receivers.
“It wasn’t our best game,” Nielson said. “At the same time, I think Dayton was exactly what we said they were going to be. They’re a team that’s going to play very hard. They’re very experienced, and they execute very well.”
The defense for the Flyers (10-2) created trouble for running back Nikko Watson in the first half as well. But once Watson figured out how to find holes, he plowed his way to a 152-yard performance, including a seven-yard touchdown rush that evened the game at 7-7 with 6:06 left in the second quarter.
“We had a game plan where we were just going to move the ball down the field,” Watson said. “We kind of made some mistakes in the first half; we were just too energized and played too fast. We calmed down in the second half and started moving the ball with the run game.”
And Watson soon became too much for the Flyers to handle.
“He’s a load, he really is,” said Dayton head coach Rick Chamberlin. “It’s hard to get your arms around him. He’s strong; sometimes it took four or five of our guys. That’s what happens when the running back is bigger and heavier than your linebackers.”
In the second half, the Leathernecks were able to get the passing game flowing as well, and took control of the game.
Late in the first quarter, quarterback Sean McGuire threw his first touchdown of the game to Lance Lenoir for 22 yards, putting the Leathernecks in front 17-7. McGuire notched his second touchdown pass just a few minutes later, hitting Stacey Smith for nine yards and stretching the lead to 24-7.
McGuire finished his day by completing 12 of 26 passes for 183 yards, while Lenoir led the game with 93 receiving yards.
“I’ve had the good fortune of coaching in a lot of playoff games, and they’re always going to be hard-fought,” Nielson said. “There’s a lot of emotion in them. They’re always a little bit different, and that’s what makes playoffs great.”