Get ready for some December football, ladies and gentlemen.
That’s right. It’s December, and the Western Illinois Leathernecks are still playing football.
For one more week, at least.
Forget about that three-game losing streak that seems like ancient history now. Ever since the skid against Illinois State, Youngstown State and North Dakota State, this Leatherneck football team has, kind of, spoiled its fans with an amazing three-game winning streak, including a first round victory in the FCS playoffs.
The Leathernecks defeated Dayton on Saturday at Welcome Stadium in Ohio , 24-7, to advance to the second round, despite looking questionable at some points in the game.
“I’ve learned over the years, any win in the playoffs is a good win,” head coach Bob Nielson said after the game. “And we’re certainly going to take it and try to be a better football team next week.”
Ah, yes. Next week. Illinois State — the team that jumpstarted that three-game losing streak to begin with, beating Western 48-28 in Week Eight. Who would have thought the Leathernecks would get another shot at the Redbirds this season?
Three weeks ago, when the Leathernecks were fresh off a 59-7 thumping by the Bison and quarterback Trenton Norvell went down with appendicitis, did you think we would soon be talking about a second round playoff game? Did anyone believe that was possible?
I know I didn’t. Heck, I’ll be the first to admit that I was ready to call the season after the home loss against Youngstown State. I thought that was a game that the Leathernecks (7-5) needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, because they still had the high-ranked North Dakota State and South Dakota State coming up on the schedule.
But everyone always says it’s not about being the best team out there. It’s about getting hot at the right time, and the Leathernecks have done that. Sean McGuire, Nikko Watson and Lance Lenoir have shown up to play when they needed to. This defense, which essentially has remained hot for most of the season, has done nothing but come up huge in the most important moments of big games.
The result: An overtime road win against Indiana State to keep the season alive, a snowy overtime home upset against No. 5 South Dakota State, getting officially announced as a playoff team on ESPNU, and then knocking off Dayton in the playoffs.
What a turnaround. The Leathernecks have gotten hot at the right time.
And putting it simply, that’s pretty much the formula for winning football games. You don’t need to have the most star-studded roster in the league. You just need the players you do have to do their job, to catch a few breaks here and there, and to click at the right time.
The Leathernecks are doing just that. And because of it, they are getting another shot at the Redbirds.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, win or lose, it’s been a heck of a season for Western Illinois. Nielson is no longer in the process of turning this program around. He HAS turned it around.
So get excited, Leatherneck Nation. Your team is playing December football.