Home sweet homecoming

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Jake Thompson

Western Illinois players celebrate with the Marching Leathernecks band after their thrilling 36-35 victory over the Indiana State Sycamores on Saturday.

Adam Feiner

In the multiple twists and turns at Hanson Field Saturday, it was Western Illinois who emerged victorious, 36-35, over the Indiana State Sycamores. The game featured multiple rallies and three lead changes.

“Momentum swings in a game are tough,” said Western head coach Charlie Fisher. “That’s what makes this game great. We withstood a couple of them today, and we have all season. It was hard-earned.”

“There’s a saying that football is a game of swings,” said quarterback Sean McGuire. “Some went our way and others went their way. We responded well to the adversity today.”

The Leathernecks got off to a sluggish start on offense. Three first quarter drives produced just 21 yards. The Sycamores took advantage late in the first quarter on their third drive of the game. Running back Dimitri Taylor rumbled in for a touchdown from a yard out with 3:13 left in the opening quarter to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.

Western started to click offensively in the second quarter. First downs by running backs Steve McShane and Devon Moore and wide receiver Lance Lenoir pushed the Leathernecks into the red zone. On 2nd and 5 at the Sycamore 11-yard line, McGuire took a designed draw play up the middle to pay dirt to even the score.

The teams traded off explosive pass plays on their next possessions. Indiana State’s Robert Tonyan Jr. caught a deflected ball on the first play of the drive and ran 65 yards up his team’s sideline to regain the lead at 14-7. Western answered right back, as McGuire connected with Lance Lenoir on a fade ball for a 68-yard score. However, Nathan Knuffman’s PAT attempt clanged off the right upright, so the Sycamores hung to a 14-13 edge with 11:07 left before halftime.

Both defenses bent but didn’t break for the majority of the second quarter. Finally, Western engineered a near-flawless two-minute drill with 1:39 left in the half. McGuire hit Isaiah Lesure once for 15 yards, Jamie Gilmore twice for 16 yards and Lenoir four times for 48 yards on the drive, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown catch by Lenoir with 13 seconds left. The senior had nine receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Knuffman knocked home the extra point to give the Leathernecks a 20-14 lead going into halftime.

It looked as if Western might pull away from the Sycamores after their 10-play, 65-yard opening second half drive. Reserve wideout Jaelon Acklin reeled in a crucial 27-yard catch on 3rd and 7 to the Indiana State 22. A strike from McGuire to Lenoir for 15 yards gave the Leathernecks a first and goal at the Sycamore 7. McShane did the rest, as he bowled his way into the end zone from two yards out on second and goal to give Western a 27-14 cushion.

The momentum completely shifted over to the Indiana State side after that, however. Linebacker Jameer Thurman recovered a muffed punt by Lenoir at the Western 16-yard line. Two plays later, Indiana State running back Jaquan Keys sped 10 yards into the endzone to cut the deficit to 27-21. Facing 2nd and 8 with 6:52 to go in the third, McGuire didn’t see Thurman, as he intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown to give the Sycamores a 28-27 advantage. After a Western three-and-out, John Horner blocked Knuffman’s punt, giving the Indiana State offense great field position at the Leatherneck 27-yard line. Five plays later, Roland Genesy made it 35-27 in favor of the visitors with a 10yard touchdown run.   

“We had a little conflict there when they came back,” Lenoir said. “We knew there would be momentum shifts and that we would overcome them. Our veteran leaders stepped up and
made plays.”

“I know that no matter what happens, the next play is the most important,” McGuire said. “That’s how I was raised and how this coaching staff coaches.”

McGuire got back into a good rhythm on the following drive. McShane, Joe Borsellino, Tony Harper and Joe Turk all had catches on the drive as Western moved into the red zone.

With 14:46 to play and facing 3rd and goal from the Indiana State 9-yard line, the Leathernecks stole the momentum back for good. McGuire eluded a sack in the pocket, scrambled right and found Gilmore in the back of the end zone to cut the deficit to 2 at 35-33.

“What a tremendous play,” Fisher said. “You feel like you’re leaking oil so to speak, just trying to keep the engine going. We really needed to get a touchdown. I’m not one to be too easy on my quarterbacks. That’s just the type of coach I am. Here’s the thing I love about Sean McGuire: You can’t play that position if you don’t have armadillo skin. He’s got a tough hide. He can handle hard coaching. He can bounce back. He doesn’t flinch. I’m super proud he’s our quarterback.”

The Western defense forced a three-and-out on the next Indiana State drive, giving the offense ample time to retake the lead. The Leathernecks did drive 37 yards in six plays, but stalled at the Indiana State 24-yard line. Despite missing an extra point earlier, Fisher sent Knuffman onto the field to attempt a 41-yard field goal. The senior drilled it dead center, giving Western a 36-35 lead.

“I’m super happy for Nate,” Fisher said. “He’s worked hard, and that’s not an easy spot. You have to have tough skin. He had the tough break on the extra point. I always tell him to keep good body language, because you never know when you’ll be needed when the game is on the line. He hit it right on the screws.”

The Leathernecks marched 41 yards on 13 plays in a little more than seven minutes to the Sycamore 24. On 4th and 2, Fisher elected to go for it, but Stacey Smith was caught behind the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs with four minutes remaining in the contest.

Indiana State drove to their own 48-yard line, but needed to convert a 4th and 13 with under two minutes to play to stay alive. They did, as Harker hit receiver Miles Thompson over the middle for a 14-yard pickup. After three straight rushes by Genesy, the Sycamores once again faced a fourth down. This time it was 4th and 1 from the Western 29-yard line. Possibly within field goal range, Indiana State elected to go for it. The play was doomed from the start, as Harker mishandled the snap and had to fall on it for a loss of two and a turnover on downs with 30 seconds left.

“We saw they had close splits when the quarterback got under center,” said middle linebacker Brett Taylor. “They hard counted us, and we did a nice job of not jumping offside.”

“They’re getting used to fourth downs with the game on the line,” Fisher said. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many in a season this early. Maybe there was some miscommunication, or that they tried to lull us to sleep and rush onto the field. Those are tough calls whether to kick it or go for it. I just know our defense was prepared for it. My hat’s off to them, not sure what happened on the other end.”

The kick by Knuffman with 11 minutes left turned out to be the game winner. Last year, he booted the winner as time expired on homecoming to beat Southern Illinois, 37-36. It wasn’t the same situation as last year, but it turned out to be a near identical score.

“I was dreaming last night about the game and how cool it would be to kick the game-winner again,” Knuffman said.

The win moves Western to 4-1 on the season and 1-1 in the Missouri Valley. They’ll travel to Missouri State next week.

Twitter: @NobodyFeiner