Necks win battle for the state

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Necks win battle for the state

Khalen Saunders celebrates his near scoop-and-score against Illinois State University.

Khalen Saunders celebrates his near scoop-and-score against Illinois State University.

Nicholas Ebelhack / editor-in-chief

Khalen Saunders celebrates his near scoop-and-score against Illinois State University.

Nicholas Ebelhack / editor-in-chief

Nicholas Ebelhack / editor-in-chief

Khalen Saunders celebrates his near scoop-and-score against Illinois State University.

Devon Greene, Assistant Sports Editor

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Playoff hopes were on the line this Saturday in the 100th matchup between the Western Illinois University Leathernecks and the Illinois State University Redbirds. After a rough first half, the Purple and Gold went on to score 31 unanswered points to bring home the victory against their in-state rivals 31-14.

The first two drives of the game ended in punts on the foggy afternoon at Hancock Stadium. On the Redbirds’ second drive, junior quarterback Jake Kolbe and the offense were driving and made it all the way to Western’s five-yard line before senior defensive back Aaron Diggs snagged his first interception of the year.

The Leathernecks were unable to capitalize on the mistake and were forced to punt on their next drive. Illinois State finally got some production out of their offense on thier third drive. Kolbe found senior receiver Christian Gibbs with a 65-yard touchdown pass thatgave the Redbirds a 7-0 lead.

The momentum continued to turn in Illinois State’s favor after senior defensive back intercepted DraShane Glass junior quarterback Sean McGuire for his eighth interception of the year.

Penalties loomed huge on the Redbirds next drive. On a crucial third down, Illinois State picked up 25 yards which placed them on Western’s 11-yard line after two personal fouls from junior defensive lineman Khalen Saunders and Diggs. Two plays later. Kolbe found junior tight end Tylor Petkovich for his first career touchdown.

Western was unable to get any offense going in the first half and head coach Charlie Fisher fired up the team at halftime.

“We had to play better, with a little more energy and more fire.” Fisher said. “We just couldn’t get out of our way and we lost some energy there. Football is a game of momentum, we have to seize it and keep it.”

Western had the first drive of the half and looked like a completely different team. The offense found their first big play of the game when McGuire found tight end Tony Harper for a 37-yard completion, which put Western in Redbird territory. Brandon Gaston finished off the drive with a jumping catch over his defender for the 35-yard touchdown, which gave the Purple and Gold their first score of the game.

McGuire praised the team’s mentality at halftime, which brought them back into the game.

“We had a great halftime locker room and our mind was in the right spot, we’ve come back so many times and there was no need for panic.” McGuire said. “We just started making plays and didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Western’s next drive was just as successful as McGuire and the offense started to pick apart the Redbird defense. Senior receiver Jaelon Acklin, junior running back Steve McShane and Harper all found their numbers called on the ensuing drive which led to redshirt freshman running back Clint Ratkovich’s first touchdown of the season, which tied the game up at 14.

On defense, the Leathernecks started to clamp down on everything Illinois State was trying to do. Saunders saw the shift in the defense after the half.

“Our demeanor changed, we had a lot of respect for their running backs and all the games which they’ve won, and they ran for a healthy amount.” Saunders said. At halftime we came together and said ‘You know what’s coming at you, and we have to accept the challenge and beat it.’”

The Illinois State running back duo of redshirt freshman Markel Smith and sophomore James Robinson couldn’t find any lanes in the second half and the Redbird offense continued to struggle because of it. All three of their drives of the third quarter ended in punts and Western Illinois capitalized on every possession.

The Leathernecks gained their first lead of the game after a 27-yard field goal put Western ahead 17-14. The fourth quarter continued to show the change in momentum at halftime. Illinois State encountered a 4th and 9 from their own 28-yard line and decided to fake a punt which failed and gave the Leathernecks favorable field position. Ratkovich scored once again on the first play after the failed fake punt attempt with a spectacular diving catch in the back of
end zone.

The tipping point occurred on the following kickoff when Smith fumbled and was recovered by Zach Glisan in Redbird territory. McShane finished off the final scoring drive of the day with a 1-yard touchdown run which capped off the scoring run of 31 unanswered points.

The big win in Normal snapped the losing streak which plagued the Purple and Gold. They head to the Indiana State University to take on  the Sycamores next Saturday.

Twitter: @devondeadlysins

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