Football hoping for bounce-back performance against familiar faces

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Jake Thompson

Wide receiver Lance Lenoir is one of eight seniors who played under Bob Nielson in his time at Western.

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Every week in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, there are matchups with national implications. The juiciest matchup in the MVFC this week will be in Vermillion, South Dakota, when the 13th-ranked Western Illinois Leathernecks (5-2, 2-2 MVFC) travel to take on a few familiar faces with the  No. 25 South Dakota Coyotes (4-3, 3-1 MVFC).

Western is coming off a hard-fought home loss to North Dakota State. The Leathernecks had two field goals blocked in the game, and were stopped on the NDSU goal line midway through the fourth quarter. Despite the tough loss, the team has maintained high spirits as they try to bounce back.

“I don’t think any wind was taken out of our sails,” said middle linebacker Brett Taylor. “I look at it as another learning opportunity. We’ve had good energy at practice this week. We’re hungry to get back at it. We don’t like that losing feeling.”

“The thing we guard against is having that hangover after last week,” said center Jacob Judd. “That’s happened with some of the teams in our conference.”

Another intriguing factor to the matchup is Western’s players going up against many of their former coaches. USD head coach Bob Nielson held the same title in Macomb for the past three years before his move to Vermillion in December 2015. Nielson also took with him seven former Leatherneck coaches. To no surprise, Western’s players will have a newfound motivation this week to prove to Nielson and company that leaving for a conference rival was the wrong move.

“There will be a little bit more juice,” Taylor said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about us doing whatever we can to get the win.”

“Whatever you’re motivation is, that’s fine,” said Western head coach Charlie Fisher. “I suspect a little extra from our players. The big thing is we can’t let that deter us from our preparation, concentration and execution on the field.”

“I don’t have any hard feelings for our old coaches,” Judd said. “But is this game special to me? Yeah. They know our personnel. Obviously they’ve taken some things from here. But we can’t be so constricted in that view. It’s still football.”

South Dakota has been one of the hottest teams in the Missouri Valley recently after winning their last three games against Northern Iowa, Indiana State and Illinois State. The Coyotes are ranked No. 25 in the polls, the first time they’ve cracked the Top 25 since 2011, and the first time as an MVFC member. USD is 3-0 this year at home, while Western is 3-1 on the road. Something has to give Saturday afternoon inside the Dakota Dome.

“Certainly they’re playing well and finding ways to win close games,” Fisher said. “But at the same time I would say that we’re playing good football. Going on the road makes it a little harder, but we’ve been a good road team. You have to have the right mentality on the road. There can’t be doubt and fear. You go and play to win and attack the other team.”

Noise could play a factor inside the 10,000-seat Dakota Dome. It is much smaller than the UNI Dome or Fargo Dome, but the home crowd should provide a definitive home field advantage for the Coyotes. The Leathernecks have worked on silent snap counts and other timing plays in practice to combat the possibility of extreme noise.

“We’ve played in loud games this year in places you wouldn’t really expect,” said quarterback Sean McGuire. “That’s just college football. I think each week we do a good job of preparing for any given circumstance.”

“Only time will tell if those need to be implemented,” Fisher said. “The bigger concern would be the heat of playing in a warmer dome. The sterile environment is totally different than what we’ve seen thus far.”

Western will also wear different cleats Saturday to match the surface of the Dakota Dome. The playing field is a spongy surface that looks a bit like normal carpet. The players will wear a tennis shoe-style cleat, with little molded tips for grip.

The Leathernecks need to regain their footing in order to stay on-track for a postseason berth. Many national projections have the Leathernecks as one of the final at-large teams in the field. A loss Saturday could put a serious damper on any playoff hopes. Winning out would guarantee a playoff spot, but Western can’t look ahead in the toughest conference in the FCS.

“Everybody knows there are opportunities ahead for us if we keep winning,” Fisher said. “We have a lot of work left to do and a tough schedule. We try to keep perspective by not looking too far back and not too far ahead.”

The Leatherneck Club is hosting a watch party for the game at Sports Corner @ 124 in Macomb on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. in Vermillion.

Twitter: @NobodyFeiner