‘We’re going to win’: Western spoils Northern Iowa Homecoming in final seconds

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‘We’re going to win’: Western spoils Northern Iowa Homecoming in final seconds

Jaelon Acklin pulls in a pass in the final seconds to beat Northern Illinois on Saturday in Cedar Falls.

Jaelon Acklin pulls in a pass in the final seconds to beat Northern Illinois on Saturday in Cedar Falls.


Jaelon Acklin pulls in a pass in the final seconds to beat Northern Illinois on Saturday in Cedar Falls.



Jaelon Acklin pulls in a pass in the final seconds to beat Northern Illinois on Saturday in Cedar Falls.

Devon Greene, Assistant Sports Editor

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After a bitter loss in their homecoming game, the Western Illinois University Leathernecks were looking to bounce back in one of the most hostile environments in the FCS. The University of Northern Iowa Panthers had won five of the last six matchups between the two teams. Western fought through adversity and came out victoirous Saturday afternoon, 38-29.

Western started the game with an eight play scoring drive that resulted in a field goal from sophomore kicker Sam Crosa. However, two false start penalties held them from scoring a touchdown after junior running back Steve McShane took a screen pass to the one-yard line.

The Leathernecks’ field goal was the only score of the quarter, as both offenses couldn’t seem to get anything going. Western and the Northern Iowa combined for five punts in the first quarter.

The Leathernecks opened the second quarter in nightmarish fashion after a bad snap on the punt. Red-shirt freshman punter Adam Fellner saved the Leatherneck defense from being placed with their backs against the wall by attempting a forward pass while he was being tackled, keeping the Panthers at the 46-yard line to start
the drive.

The next Northern Iowa drive ended quickly after junior quarterback Eli Dunne threw an interception to senior defensive back Tyrin Holloway on the first play of the drive.

Western’s next possession ended with another punt. Fellner performed a textbook 42-yard punt and pinned the Panthers at their own one-yard line. The first play for Northern Iowa was a quarterback sneak from Dunne that gained two yards. Next, sophomore running back Trevor Allen busted a 97-yard run up the gut for an untouched touchdown, but the play was called back due to an illegal formation. One play later, junior linebacker Pete Swenson put  pressure on Dunne and recorded a sack in the back of the end zone for a safety, putting Western ahead 5-0.

Northern Iowa closed out the first half strong with two scoring possessions. The first came on a 3 play, 54-yard drive that ended with a 30-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Elias Nissen and gave Northern Iowa their first lead of the game, at 7-5. The next drive ended in a second touchdown after a 17-yard reception by Daurice Fountain was fumbled into the end zone and recovered by Nissen. The Panthers went into the locker room up 14-5 at half.

The first two possessions of the second half ended with a punt by both teams. Northern Iowa’s third drive was halted with Dunne’s second interception of the night, this time coming from senior defensive back David Griffith. Western Illinois head coach Charlie Fisher saw how important Griffith’s interception was for their team.

“All it took was a play like that, our defense played so well” Fisher said. “We were getting after the quarterback and sacking him, we’re hitting him and getting turnovers. When you get that type of field and that flip that’s what we needed and once we got going and figured it out, we got in rhythm.”

The Leatherneck offense certainly did find their rhythm in the third quarter. The first drive was a touchdown on a toss play to the outside by McShane after making a defender miss with a spin move on the 4-yard line. The Leatherneck defense continued to hold strong and forced a punt on the Panthers’ next drive.

Junior quarterback Sean McGuire dropped a pinpoint pass right into the hands of junior receiver Isaiah LeSure for a 46-yard touchdown that gave the Leathernecks a 18-14 lead after a failed two-point conversion.

Northern Iowa finally had a big play after Dunne found sophomore receiver Aaron Graham over the middle on a post route but he then fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Griffith. This play resulted in a very confusing moment for everyone in the Northern Iowa Dome. The officials elected to review the play which was initially called an incomplete pass. They came back on the field and changed the call to a fumble that was recovered and resulted in a first down, but did not specify which team had possession. They reviewed the play a second time and maintained that it was a fumble and Western
recovered it.

The Leathernecks capitalized on the fumble with a familiar face catching a touchdown from McGuire, senior receiver Jaelon Acklin. McGuire and Acklin have shown a chemistry on the field that has proven to be almost unstoppable the past two weeks. McGuire praises the off-field relationship between the two star players.

“It feels awesome, Jaelon’s like my best friend, we texted each other before coming [to Western] and said ‘You’re good at football, I’m good at football, let’s go play together’ and we’ve been rooming together since freshman year. So, we’ve been so close that I tell him, ‘I’m going to throw it, I know you’re going to be there to catch it” 
McGuire said.

Acklin’s touchdown gave Western a 25-14 lead with 11:01 left in the first quarter and all the momentum. Yet, Northern Iowa came back on their next drive refusing to go down easy.

The Panthers put together a nine play, 81-yard drive that ended with a wide-open Nissen finding the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown to give Northern Iowa a chance by shrinking the lead to 25-22. The Panther defense then recorded a three-and out giving Dunne and the offense one more shot to take the lead.

Northern Iowa converted two fourth downs on the masterful drive that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Dunne to Graham to give Northern Iowa a 29-25 lead with only 1:12 left in the fourth quarter.

McGuire and the Leathernecks found themselves in this position last week in their heartbreaking homecoming loss to the University of South Dakota. Their final drive ended in an interception that iced the game against the conference rival. McGuire was not going to let that happen again to his team. He talked to his offense before stepping on the field for the final drive.

“I said ‘We’re going to win, and I think everyone believed it” McGuire said. “There were times it was hard to believe. It was louder than ever and it was hard to hear everything. You can feel it, and I told them ‘Keep feeling it. Let it take over, every emotion. Nervousness, anxiousness, all of it.’ Sometimes you’re just in that moment and you have to let it consume you and we did. We let it consume us and we took the most out of it.”

McGuire’s confidence fueled the team on their final drive and head coach Fisher expected nothing else from the leader of the offense.

“We always feel we have a chance, he is a true champion” Fisher said. “There’s just some guys that have ‘it’ and however you want to describe it, he’s got ‘it’. He’s got every intangible that you want a quarterback to have and the most important one is he is a high character, tough cat that loves to win football games.”

Following a kickoff that sailed out of bounds and resulted with Western starting their drive from their 35-yard line, the Leathernecks found themselves with their backs against the wall early with a crucial 4th and 15. McGuire found sophomore receiver Brandon Gaston on the sideline for a 16-yard reception to put Western in Panther territory. After a couple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that hurt the team last week against South Dakota, head coach Fisher was elated to see Gaston get back on track.

“Brandon has come so far and we had a lot of talks this week” Fisher said. “I’m so proud of him because he played under control and he’s played good football all year for us. He’s just made a couple mistakes he needed to clean up and he understood that and the great thing is he took ownership for that and understood where he needed to go moving forward.”

McGuire scrambled for 13 yards on the next play for a first down at Northern Iowa’s 20-yard line with 16 second remaining. The Leathernecks ran two plays that resulted in incomplete passes before the game clinching catch.

Western lined up on 3rd and 10 with 11 second remaining and snapped the ball. A flag flew out from the side judge but the play continued. McGuire found his number one target, Acklin, streaking down the middle of the field through three Panther defenders for the touchdown.

Everyone in the Northern Iowa Dome held their breaths waiting for the call that changed the game. The Panthers were offside and Western declined the penalty, resulting in a touchdown with six seconds remaining.

“At first, I thought we might have had a penalty because I saw the penalty flag thrown and when I saw the ref say that it was on the defense, I can’t even describe it,” Acklin said. “It was like being in a dream or something. I kind of bursted out in tears because I know where I was at last year and the years before that and its crazy to think about what’s happening now.”

On the following kickoff, Northern Iowa return man, redshirt freshman Nick Phillips fumbled the ball and it was returned for a touchdown by junior linebacker Michael Bishoff to put the final nail in the coffin for the 38-29 road win.

Western is 4-1 (1-1 in MVCF) this season, winning all four of their games on the road. They play Missouri State University next week at home at 3 p.m.

Twitter: @devonseasofrhye

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