DAYTON, Ohio — There were many questions heading into the Western Illinois football team’s first playoff game since 2010. The Leathernecks squeaked into the playoffs with a 6-5 record (3-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference), earning the spot to play the Dayton Flyers in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Would Sean McGuire, the backup quarterback making just his third career start, be able to carry the Leathernecks? Would the defense be able to stop the great running game that the Flyers have? Do the Leathernecks deserve to be in the playoffs?
There are four big reasons that the Leathernecks won this game, even though they started off with a very rough first quarter. In the 24-7 victory, the Leathernecks proved that they deserved the playoff spot.
Let’s take a quick look at those four reasons:
1. Sean McGuire
The redshirt freshman had a lot on his plate when he was rushed into the starting role a few weeks ago. Trenton Norvell was scheduled to start against the Indiana State Sycamores, but an appendectomy put him out for the rest of the season. McGuire led the Leathernecks in a must-win, come-from-behind victory in overtime on the road.
He followed up that performance in a snowy mess against the fifth-ranked SDSU Jackrabbits — another must-win game. McGuire led the Leathernecks to overtime once again, and sealed the victory by running the ball into the end zone himself.
McGuire showed up to play on Saturday against the Flyers, another high-pressure game. Despite a slow offensive start, McGuire was determined, and led the Leathernecks to their third straight victory. He went 12-26 with 183 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed 12 times for 46 yards.
In three high-pressure games, McGuire hasn’t cracked. He’s worked through the interceptions and has even used his legs to keep the Leathernecks in games. As a backup, that’s pretty impressive.
2. Nikko Watson
The six-foot, 250-pound running back has been crucial to Western’s success this season. The Leathernecks are 0-3 in games in which he runs for less than 100 yards and are 6-1 when he rushes for more than 100.
In the game against the Flyers, Watson rushed 34 times for 163 yards and a touchdown that tied the game in the first half.
The Leathernecks struggled early, and it looked they were going to end their season in the first round of the playoffs. Once Watson started to get going and helped the Leathernecks move the ball down the field, Western never looked back.
Watson is the key to success for the Leathernecks. If the opposing defense stops him, it’s going to be a long day.
3) Lance Lenoir
Defenses know to keep Lenoir from getting open because of the threat he brings to the table for Western. Lenoir has put together back-to-back seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards. So far this year, he has 1,087 yards with six touchdowns, and is averaging six receptions per game.
Against Dayton, Lenoir finished with six receptions, 93 yards and a touchdown. This was Lenoir’s first touchdown since the Leathernecks lost to North Dakota State 59-7 in early November.
The Leathernecks forced four turnovers against the Flyers, including an early interception in the end zone and a fumble recovery on the one-yard line, twice preventing the Flyers from finding points.
Sophomore linebacker Brett Taylor picked up the fumble recovery and Adam Brott, David Griffith and Myles Spearman all found interceptions.
The defense also sacked the Dayton quarterback, Alex Jeske five times, and Spencer Adams once.
Brott had one sack for a 12-yard loss, and Eddy Holtschlag also had once sack for three yards.
The big surprise from the defense was Pete Swenson, a redshirt freshman. He picked up four sacks for 28 total yards lost. Swenson had one sack all season prior to this game.
Taylor continued his dominant season, picking up seven more tackles and bringing his total up to 74 this season. Even the commentators for the broadcast were raving about Taylor and his “NFL possibilities.”
The defense is one of the strengths for this Leatherneck team. When this group clicks click, it’s very hard for the other team score. That was proven in Dayton on Saturday as the Flyers were held off the scoreboard in the last three quarters.
These four pieces are crucial for the second round game against the Illinois State Redbirds. If the Leathernecks want to find redemption for the 48-28 loss to the Redbirds earlier this season, all four of these pieces must be on top of their game.