Leatherneck offense explodes vs. NAU


Jake Thompson

Running back Steve McShane (holding ball), celebrates a touchdown with teammates. McShane finished with 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 34-20 win.

Adam Feiner

Going into their game against Northern Arizona, all the Western Illinois football team had heard about was the high-flying Lumberjacks offense under the direction of reigning FCS Freshman of the Year, Case Cookus. Instead, it was the Leatherneck offense that was high-flying on Saturday at Hanson Field. Western racked up 539 yards of offense in the 34-20 win.

“I’d be lying if (I said) we weren’t sick of hearing about it,” said quarterback Sean McGuire. “We played with a chip on our shoulder, and it showed.”

“That’s where our aggression came from,” said sophomore cornerback Xavier Rowe. “That first drive, we were a little too excited. As the game went on, we settled in and played our brand of football.”

The Lumberjacks took just 1:12 of game clock to go up 7-0. Elijah Marks caught a tipped pass off the hands of Western’s Justin Fitzpatrick for a 42-yard touchdown.

The Leathernecks answered with a 12-play, 50-yard drive, but couldn’t even the game up. Nathan Knuffman got Western on the board with a 27-yard field goal midway through the
first quarter.

Almost four minutes later, the Lumberjacks struck again, this time on a trick play. Cookus threw to wide receiver Hunter Burton behind the line of scrimmage on what looked to be a screen play. The Leatherneck defense lost track of Emmanuel Butler, who snuck behind everybody and hauled in the double pass from Burton for a 37-yard touchdown. However, Western’s Quentin Moon blocked the following extra point attempt, keeping the Lumberjacks to just 13 points.

You can’t discount how big that was, because it eased their momentum and gave us hope,” Fisher said of Moon’s block.

Knuffman tacked on another field goal with 9:17 left in the second quarter to pull the Leathernecks to within a score. After a defensive stop, the Western offense went 84 yards in just seven plays, capped off by a 4-yard touchdown run by sophomore Steve McShane with a little more than two minutes to go before halftime to knot the game up at 13.

The second half turned out to be the Steve McShane and Lance Lenoir Show. Almost six minutes into the half, McShane took a simple run off tackle and streaked up the NAU sideline, blowing past everybody for an electrifying 62-yard touchdown run to give Western its first lead of the game.

“He keeps getting better,” Fisher said of the Freeport, Illinois native. “He’s more patient in the hole. But he can hit the home run. He’s proven that two weeks in a row now. When he turns the corner, he can finish. It’s exciting when you have a back like that.”

Lenoir had five catches for 108 yards in the first half. He continued his stellar play in the second half, despite being double-covered by the Northern Arizona defense. That opened the door for other receivers like Joey Borsellino (three catches for 28 yards) and Isaiah Lesure (two catches for 32 yards). Instead of kicking a long field goal into a stiff breeze, Fisher decided to go for it on fourth and 21 from the NAU 26-yard line with 2:07 left in the third quarter. Fisher was rewarded for the gutsy decision when McGuire found Lesure up the seam for a touchdown that put Western up, 27-13.

“That’s the glory of this offense, especially when we have the receivers we do,” McGuire said. “You can’t really double anyone, because we have a bunch of guys who can ball.”

“I felt we had an advantage with all of our receivers, wherever they lined up,” Lenoir said. “They had some smaller corners who were good, but we used our size and strength to our advantage today.”

The Lumberjacks did respond with an 8-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on their next possession to bring them within a score. It would be the last score of the game for Northern Arizona, as the Leatherneck defense imposed their will for a majority of the second half.

“We knew we had to be patient,” Rowe said. “We knew who they were as a quick-strike offense. We made a game plan Tuesday, stuck to it, and it worked. Eventually we were more physical.”

“As the game went on, we rallied to the ball and tackled better,” Fisher said. “They hit us in the nose early on, but we didn’t fold. For the most part we limited their big plays. We responded, and that speaks to the kind of kids we have.”

The fact that Lenoir was practically unguardable proved to be the axe in any chance of an NAU comeback. The senior from Crete, Illinois, hauled in a 56-yard pass from McGuire with 10 minutes to play. Three plays later, the two found each other again, this time in the form of a 10-yard touchdown. Lenoir became the all-time touchdowns leader in Western Illinois football history with his 22nd as a Leatherneck. He ended the game with 11 receptions and 231 yards, the fourth-most yards in a single game in Leatherneck history, to go along with the touchdown.

“Thanks to my quarterback and other receivers, they make it possible for me,” Lenoir said. “It’s much easier to create my routes that way. Without them, I wouldn’t be me.”

“Lance is Lance,” McGuire said. “We love to get him the ball early and often. We had opportunities there because of the play calling. Coach Malone and our offensive staff really set Lance up to have a big day.”

“If you go by the numbers, he’s the best there’s ever been here,” Fisher said. “Shame on me as a head coach if I didn’t believe he needed to be involved in the offense and our game plan. It’s common sense; number 7 is really good, get him the ball.”

The Leatherneck defense came up with one big final stop to preserve the win. On fourth and two and Northern Arizona on the Western 10-yard line with less than six minutes left, David Griffith tackled Hunter Burton behind the line of scrimmage, allowing Western to run out the clock.

The Leathernecks (2-0) will have their bye week next weekend. They’ll return to action on Saturday, Sept. 24 in DeKalb to take on the Northern Illinois Huskies.

Twitter: @NobodyFeiner