Leathernecks look to neutralize North Alabama

Sebastian Gamboa, Courier Staff

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Our very own Western Illinois University Fighting Leathernecks will kick off the 2019 season tomorrow night at Braley Stadium in Florence, Alabama against the University of North Alabama Lions at 7pm.

This will be Western’s first encounter with the Lions who are coming off a 7-3 finish last season as an independent team. This year will actually be the first season for the Lions in their new conference, The Big South Conference (Division I). Our Fighting Leathernecks are coming off a 5-6 season with high hopes to make a playoff run, which was last accomplished only two seasons ago in 2017.

One point of excitement for all Leatherneck fans is junior QB Conor Sampson. In his first year on the captain squad, Sampson will be the first new quarterback at the helm of the Leatherneck offense since Sean McGuire began his reign in 2015. Sampson has a career 10 games with a 50 percent completion rate for 132 yards with a touchdown and only one interception. Sampson will be accompanied on offense by former Ohio State University Transfer RB Jared Drake and award-winning fullback Clint Ratkovich. Last year, Ratkovich racked up 616 receiving yards and reached the end zone 3 times for a triplet of touchdowns.

The capable Leatherneck offense will be accompanied by a battle-hardened defense led by captains senior defensive back Eric Carrera and senior linebacker Tom Rehfeld. Carrera is the team leader in career tackles and interceptions with 114 and 4 repectively. That career performance combined with Rehfeld’s 12 career tackles are emblematic of the force to be reckoned with that the Leatherneck defense will be to opposing offenses this week and the entire season.

This week, the competition is tough. The Lions’ offense is led by senior QB Christian Lopez, who completed 60 percent of hill passes last season with an average of 218 yards per game. Lopez also had a touchdown to interception ratio of 5:2. UNA also has a talented trifecta of backs in the backfield with veterans Terence Humphrey and Ja’won Howell with a new addition in the frontrunner junior RB, Ron Thompson.

The Lions’ defense will be led by Junior Linebacker Will Evans, who had a career-leading performance last year with 22 solo tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and cost his opponents a total of 42 yards. In the secondary, the Lions have at their disposal junior DB K.J. Smith. Smith accrued 30 solo tackles last year in his first season with the Lions along with 3 interceptions costing opponents 79 yards.

As we look ahead, following the Yellow Brick Road (the regular season) into the Emerald City (the post season) will be a journey marred with struggle and challenge, but if there is one thing that we know about our Fighting Leathernecks it is that their hard work, blood, sweat and tears set them apart from any and all competitors and put them in a position where they are poised to overcome any and all obstacles which obstruct their path to success. The Lions will be a great first test and a chance to make adjustments before our Leathernecks head to Fort Collins, Co. to face Colorado State in Week Two.

Twitter: @yaboisebbyg

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