Western’s prolific passing game puts Leathernecks among national leaders
today at 4:05 am
Early in the COVID-19 quarantine, Western Illinois football players weren’t sure if a season would be reality.
“We didn’t know when we were going to play – whether it was going to be in the fall (of 2020) or in the spring (of 2021),” senior wide receiver Dennis Houston said. “We knew we would have to have chemistry whenever that was.”
So Houston joined fellow receiver Tony Tate and WIU quarterback Connor Sampson to prepare for whatever was ahead.
“Me, Dennis and Tony all came back and started working out by ourselves,” Sampson said. “We worked for a few weeks without the team even here. It was just the three of us on a random field we found.”
Sampson threw to his receivers as the group worked on routes and ironed out plays from the WIU playbook.
That preparation has paid dividends in the passing game for the Leathernecks (0-5), who host Youngstown State (1-4) in a Missouri Valley Football Conference game at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 3 (ESPN+).
Sampson leads the MVFC in passing yards a game (288.6) and ranks ninth nationally among FCS quarterbacks with 1,443 yards. His 400 career completions rank eighth all time at WIU. He now owns the top four single-game completion records at Western, including the No. 1 spot, his 40-completion day last weekend against Northern Iowa.
If it holds, Sampson’s current passing yards per game average would be the highest in WIU history by nearly 25 yards.
Houston is 11th nationally and leads the MVFC in receptions per game (7.6), while Tate is third in the conference (6.7) and junior Dallas Daniels (5.8) ranks fourth.
“They all bring something different,” Sampson said of his top three targets. “Dennis is a downfield guy. Tony is one of the fastest guys in our league, real shifty. Dallas is a guy with strong hands and he’s a great route runner.”
Though Western’s pass game (13th in FCS at 292.0 per game) has piled up nearly 50 yards more a game than the MVFC’s second-best air attack – South Dakota (243.2) – the Leathernecks’ run game ranks last at 55 yards a game.
“We can do a little bit better in the run game, no doubt,” Sampson said. “Once we get the run game going, it’s going to take our offense to the next level.”
Western also has struggled to put two consistent halves of offense together. Against Illinois State last month, the Leathernecks needed until late in the third quarter to reach 100 total yards of offense.
“That’s definitely the biggest goal, just staying consistent,” Sampson said. “We throw for a lot of yards, but I think we can be more explosive than we are.”
Running it back
Sampson told Prairie State Pigskin he plans to return to play QB for Western in the fall, which will be his sixth season.
“I love everything about Western,” he said. “I love Macomb. I love the coaches. I love the players. Not many people get the opportunity to get a sixth year. I just want that opportunity. I’m extremely comfortable in this offense.”
Houston, also a senior, said he is “leaning toward coming back” in the fall.
News and notes
Tate ranks third in the conference with 115.4 all-purpose yards per game. … Schaumburg’s Mason Laramie, WIU’s junior kicker who transferred from NCAA Division II University of Sioux Falls, has the longest field goal of the season in the MVFC at 53 yards. He is also Western’s scoring leader with 25 points this spring. … Left guard Michael Ross, a junior who played prep football at Illinois powerhouse Montini High School in Lombard, is the team’s leader with 18 career starts, including five in a row. … YSU junior tailback Jaleel McLaughlin rushed for a combined 57 yards in his first two games this season. Since then, the transfer from D-II Notre Dame College has been a workhorse. In the past three games, McLaughlin has rush for 414 yards. His 166-yard game against South Dakota on March 20 is a career high. In each of his two seasons on the D-II level, the shifty McLaughlin rushed for at least 2,400 yards. He finished second in 2019 and third in 2018 in voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s best D-II player. … After scoring seven total points in its first two spring games, the Penguins 22.3 points a game since.
Where to find the game
Western hosts Youngstown State at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 3. The game will air on ESPN+ online, and the radio broadcast is available at Mixlr.com/wiu-athletics.