The Western Illinois Football schedule was released to the public yesterday afternoon, with the Missouri Valley conference announcing there will be an 8-game season starting the weekend of Feb. 19.
Before I get into the predictions for Leathernecks, let’s take a look at who will be suiting up in the Purple and Gold this season. Western lost notable contributors on defense last season but brought back some promising talent. Looking to lead the way for the defensive unit is Herschel Blankenship and Cole Watts. The returning linebackers look to be the heart of the defense followed by Zaire Williams leading a new look secondary.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Leathernecks bring back most of their core players. Conor Sampson, Clint Ratkovich, Dennis Houston, and Tony Tate highlight a very seasoned offense. However, the biggest storyline for this offense has been Western signing JaTarvious Whitlow, the transfer running back out of the University of Auburn. Whitlow figures to be a big part of the Leatherneck offense and should be a matchup nightmare for every team in the Valley. Now, let’s take a look at that newly released schedule.
Week one the Leathernecks travel to face former Western head coach Bob Nielson and the South Dakota Coyotes. A season ago, Western was able to escape with a win in the final seconds to secure their first and only win of the year. I expect more of the same this season, but this time more wins will follow for a more successful season. Western wins 24-21.
Week two Western travels to face in state rivals Illinois State after getting a bye week to follow week one. This is going to be another close game, as the last few matchups have gone down to the wire. However, the Redbirds aren’t the same team who lost in the FCS final four a year ago. They lost the center of their offense in running back James Robinson who was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars upon graduation. This one figures to be a defense battle, and I believe the experienced Leathernecks come up on top by one score 17-14.
As we head into week three, the Leathernecks sit at 2-0. Pretty good, right? But now their schedule bumps up a notch. They face Northern Iowa for their home opener. They went 10-5 a season ago, and sit at third in the FCS preseason rankings only behind NDSU and James Madison University. This will be a tough one for the Leathernecks to pull out even as the home team, and my guess is the Leathernecks will lose 31-14.
After their first loss of the season, Western goes back on the road to South Dakota State. This will be Western’s toughest two-game stretch the whole season. While SDSU may not be ranked higher than NDSU or UNI, they have historically been in the top three of the FCS rankings year in, and year out. This year they are currently ranked fifth and will be as tough as ever. Western drops their second straight, losing 28-14.
The next few weeks get a bit easier for Western as they face off against North Dakota and Youngstown State, respectively. The Leathernecks should be able to close out these two games fairly easily. The reasoning behind it is that North Dakota is new to Missouri Valley competition and Youngstown State lost their head coach so they will be dealing with new leadership. Western now is 4-2 through six games.
With two weeks to go in the season, their seventh matchup will be against Southern Illinois. SIU is coming off a very promising season with a young roster. After being snubbed out of a playoff spot a season ago, they’ll be very hungry. With both teams likely still in the playoff hunt at this point, this should be awfully close. However, I believe SIU pulls it out with the amount of talent they have, especially if they build off last season. Western falls 28-24.
In the season finale, Western comes in at 4-3 facing Indiana State. The Sycamores are coming off a disappointing season highlighted by their QB going down with a season-ending injury. This one can go either way, with both teams around the same skill level. So, with the positive energy I bring, I’m going to say Western comes out on top 20-17, and finishes the year 5-3.
So, after going through the schedule, Leathernecks improve from 1-12 to 5-3, but whatever happens, I’m just glad football’s back! Only time will tell how this season unravels.