Western football’s 2016 season one to remember, not forget

Quarterback+Sean+McGuire+%28left%29+and+running+back+Steve+McShane+%28right%29+should+post+big+numbers+in+2017+after+having+played+a+year+in+Coach+Fisher%E2%80%99s+pro-style+attack.

Jake Thompson

Quarterback Sean McGuire (left) and running back Steve McShane (right) should post big numbers in 2017 after having played a year in Coach Fisher’s pro-style attack.

Adam Feiner

Football season came to an abrupt end here in Macomb last Saturday, as Western Illinois (6-5, 3-5 MVFC) fell to in-state rival Southern Illinois in Carbondale. The Leathernecks were playoff-eligible, but were not selected by the FCS committee to participate in the postseason.

Things were looking good for Western midway through the third quarter. The Leathernecks jumped out to a 31-14 lead, a positive sign after falling behind in previous games against Illinois State and Northern Iowa. However, things went downhill in a hurry in the next 20 minutes of play.

The Salukies rallied for 30 points to Western’s three down the stretch, and defeated the Leathernecks, 44-34. Southern Illinois played the perfect spoiler. They had absolutely nothing to lose. It was Senior Day in Carbondale. They were fired up after being beaten at the final horn last season by the Leathernecks on their homecoming. Plus, the Salukies had the opportunity to erase the playoff hopes of one of their most heated rivals. It was the perfect storm for Southern.

I did not attend the game due to conflicts with me enjoying the opening weekend of shotgun deer hunting. However, I did follow the game, and really felt for all of the players and coaching staff. The Leathernecks were one win away from back-to-back playoff appearances with a record of 6-2, and were the favorite in each of their remaining three games. Instead, they couldn’t dig out of early deficits at home against ISU and UNI, and effectively ran out of gas at SIU. It pained me, a mere journalist, to watch them come up short of an incredible accomplishment.

This was such an enjoyable team to cover as a journalist for so many reasons.

From day one, the first-year coaching staff was nothing but accommodating and inviting of me following the team. It was a fresh change of pace from the old regime. Whether it was Danny Frey or myself conducting interviews, everybody within the program was very easy to work with.

I know the players are hurting knowing that they missed a chance to go back to the FCS playoffs. In my mind, they have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Going undefeated in the nonconference portion of the schedule is something very few teams in the FCS did this season. Western beat Northern Illinois in DeKalb, the first win over an FBS foe for the Leathernecks since they defeated Eastern Michigan in 2003. They gave five-time defending national champion North Dakota State all they wanted and more.

The wins were nothing short of thrilling. It was tough to maintain impartiality in the press box at Northern Illinois. A nail-biting win over Indiana State made it a happy Homecoming. A week later, the Leathernecks scored in the final minute to beat a much-improved Missouri State squad, 38-35.

After the emotional loss to North Dakota State, Western had to recharge to get ready to face seven of their former coaches at South Dakota. Things weren’t looking good at the half with the Coyotes leading 31-14. The Leatherneck defense stood tall in the second half, while the offense surged. Once again, Western found the end zone for the go-ahead score in the final minute to defeat Bob Nielson and company, 35-34. I understand that the players had to keep pretty mum about their emotions before the game, but it had to be so sweet for them to beat the coaches who left them for a “better job.”

If Western was in any other FCS conference in the nation, they would have easily been a lock for the playoffs. All five of their losses this season were in Missouri Valley Football Conference play. The league is so deep and decorated with winning traditions. It’s understandable that after playing so many close games against tough opponents, Western eventually would be drained not just physically, but mentally as well. I have no idea how Charlie Fisher kept calm through it all. Even I was feeling tense on multiple occasions.

All hope isn’t lost though for the Leathernecks.

With one year under his belt in Coach Fisher’s system, quarterback Sean McGuire will be even more comfortable under center. Steve McShane will return for his junior season, although the losses of Devon Moore and Jamie Gilmore in the backfield will be tough to replace.

Even harder to replace will be the record-book receiving duo of Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino. The two seniors will go down in Western lore as the most-prolific receiving duo in Leatherneck history. Lenoir and Borsellino combined for 448 receptions and 40 touchdowns, and have the second-most yards as a duo in FCS history a whopping 6,056 yards.

The offensive and defensive lines won’t need much retooling. Neither will the linebacker corps and secondary. The linebackers have the potential to be the best unit in the country next season, and the young secondary will only improve with more reps in spring and fall camp.

Congratulations to the Leathernecks on a great season. I know the outcome in 2016 will only fuel them to get back to the playoffs in 2017.