5 burning questions for fall 2021: Western Illinois
today at 6:10 am
The Western Illinois offense was an enigma over the past few months – a wildly successful passing game with veteran players coupled with a sluggish running game made up of new faces that ranked third-worst among 97 FCS teams that played football this spring.
Behind senior quarterback Connor Sampson and three impressive talents at wide receiver – Dennis Houston, Tony Tate and Dallas Daniels — the Leathernecks threw for nearly 294 yards a game, 12th-highest in FCS.
While playing six games before opting out, WIU (1-5) managed only a leading rusher with 23.2 yards a game.
That ground game is the biggest issue facing Western as it looks ahead to the fall campaign, which kicks off Sept. 2 at FBS Ball State.
Here are five burning questions that Prairie State Pigskin has about WIU as the fall approaches:
- Can Western find a running game?
Two freshmen – Canadian Ludovick Choquette and Hawaiian Iosefa Pua’auli – carried the ball most for the Leathernecks and produced 223 yards combined. Both showed the ability to be physical, while Choquette also contributed in the pass game with 13 catches.
A player from Alabama, however, could be the wild card in the fall. Auburn transfer JaTarvious Whitlow, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards in two seasons in the FBS Southeastern Conference, was a gem that was unearthed as a transfer. However, Whitlow did not appear in any spring games.
His contributions are desperately needed for a ground attack that did have four of its five starting O-linemen start in all six games.
2. Will the defense turn things around?
Why did the Leathernecks give up nearly 33 points a game? Well, one reason was that they seemed to constantly be on the field. Their 36 minutes, 13 seconds per game was the longest of any FCS team this season, according to NCAASports.com.
Run defense was a thorn in the Leathernecks’ side, as opponents piled up nearly 1,500 yards in only six games, an average of 217.7 a game. Certainly some of that was because defenses were able to wear WIU down.
The Leathernecks have to find a way to get opponents off the field. Those teams converted at a high rate on third down, with a 45% conversion rate.
3. How can the offense fix its third-down struggles?
The offense managed less than 25% conversions on third down. Without a reliable running attack, defenses teed off on Sampson and disrupted the Leatherneck attack. During a loss at Illinois State, Western didn’t convert a third down until midway through the third quarter.
Keeping defenses at bay on third down will be critical for the Leathernecks’ success in the fall. An improved running game and better protection up front could help Western makes defenses pay.
4. Is Michael Lawson the next great Leatherneck defender?
In a program that has produced former NFL standout defensive back Rodney Harrison and current Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Khalen Saunders, the Leathernecks may have another star in free safety Michael Lawson. The senior had a team-leading 54 tackles to go with 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions.
One of the most memorable plays of Western’s season came against Illinois State when Lawson drove on a pass play and made a diving interception of a pass from ISU quarterback Bryce Jefferson. It was a glimpse into just how impactful Lawson, a transfer from Lamar University, can be for Western.
5. Can Western make noise against a rugged fall schedule?
The Missouri Valley Football Conference offers games against playoff participants South Dakota State, North Dakota and Southern Illinois. The non-conference schedule includes the FBS game at Ball State, a trip to FCS heavyweight Montana and a visit to Macomb from powerhouse Eastern Washington.
According to FBSchedules.com, Western will miss playoff participants North Dakota State and Missouri State. However, one oddity that could be a challenge is that WIU starts the season with 10 consecutive games before a bye week in November.