Leathernecks Hold On Fourth Down, Defeat Northern Illinois


By Patrick Osterman
Special to College Sports Journal

This story is courtesy of Western Illinois athletic communications


WIU LB Brett Taylor tackles NIU RB Joel ouagnon (WIU Athletic Communications)


DeKALB, Ill. – Trying to stop Northern Illinois’ late rally, the Western Illinois defense held on 4th-and-3 at its own nine yard line in the final minute for a 28-23 victory on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 24).

The Fighting Leathernecks improved to 3-0 overall, and picked up their first FBS victory since 2003. Western’s last FBS win came at Eastern Michigan (34-12) on September 4, 2003 and it snapped a 15-game losing streak to FBS programs.

Northern cut into Western’s 21-point fourth quarter lead and forced a Leatherneck punt in the final minutes. On its final drive, NIU used big plays to get inside the redzone.

Setting up 1st-and-10 at the 16, NIU (0-4) rushed twice for a 3rd-and-3 situation. A pass went incomplete from Anthony Maddie. On fourth down, a pass attempt across the middle (short of the goal line but good enough for a first down) was deflected and Western took over on downs.

The offense went on the field for the victory formation, took a knee, and sealed the program’s seventh FBS win all-time.

“I have great respect for Northern Illinois. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy when it was 28-7. We knew we were going to have to finish. In 36 years of coaching, I think the hardest part of the game is being smart by protecting the lead, moving the clock and being aggressive,” said head coach Charlie Fisher. “There is such a fine line there. I have been there many, many times. It’s difficult because they are trying to make you one-dimensional. You have to try and make some plays. We made more than they did at the end, but it certainly wasn’t easy.”

After both teams punted on their opening series to start the game, Western forced another NIU punt and took over on its own 20 following the touchback.

Sean McGuire completed passes to Joey Borsellino and Lance Lenoir, the second which put WIU into the redzone. Two plays later Steve McShane broke a tackle and scored from 11 yards out. Nathan Knuffman‘s extra point put Western ahead 7-0 midway through the first quarter.

After forcing another Northern punt, Western took over on its 38. The Leathernecks marched 62 yards on nine plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Jamie Gilmore on 3rd-and-goal. Knuffman’s extra point made it 14-0 late in the first.

The Huskies responded on their next drive, covering 75 yards on 10 plays. Facing 4th-and-goal from the two, Ryan Graham connected with Sean Wimann on a touchdown making it 14-7 early in the second quarter.

Western ran out of time late in the first half as Isaiah Lesure was brought down after making a catch and the clock ran out with the ball near the redzone. The Leathernecks didn’t waste any time getting back on the scoreboard to start the second half.

McGuire hit Lenoir for 27 yards, then, facing 4th-and-3 from the 38, the sophomore quarterback hit Borsellino in stride to get inside the one. On the next play, McGuire scored from a yard out and extended the lead to 21-7.

During the next drive, Riggs Baxter tipped Graham’s pass and Steve Mercado came up with the interception. Five plays later, McGuire found Isaiah Lesure on a 3-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 28-7.

Northern began its rally with a 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter from Christian Hagan, then, after Western went three-and-out, the Huskies struck quickly again. A 38-yard pass play followed by a 23-yard touchdown run from Jordan Huff made it 28-17. Northern struck quickly again, needing 1:16 to cover 60 yards. Anthony Maddie found Kenny Golladay on a 39-yard TD pass, but the 2-point conversion was no good with 8:15 left in the game.

NIU also had another drive stall deep in Western territory but the defense came up big again. With 2:50 remaining in the game, Brett Taylor stopped Maddie on 4th-and-2, a yard shy of the first down.

McGuire finished 21-of-37 passing for 315 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 11 yards and a score.

Borsellino got his fifth career 100-yard receiving game, making nine catches for a game-high 148 yards. He went past 2,000 receiving yards all-time, and overtook second place all-time in receptions with (158).

“This program has come a long ways in the last four years. Ask anyone in the country and they will tell you that. You beat a team like NIU and that FBS-FCS line people say that no matter what, the FBS team will win. But it’s not always true. This win is huge for the program, and what Coach Charlie Fisher has done in such a short time is impressive,” said Borsellino.

Lenoir tied his fifth career Western Illinois receiving record when he made a catch on the opening drive. That marked a catch in his 33rd consecutive game, tying Gunnard Twyner for the all-time record. He also reached a milestone in the game when he accounted for 83 yards on five catches – going past 3,000 career-receiving yards.

Taylor recorded a game-high 13 tackles – 12 were solo stops. David Griffith added season-high 10 solo tackles.

For the third straight game, Western did not turn the ball over and forced an NIU turnover following the interception.

“We came in, there’s always that FBS-FCS middle line separating us. But we’ve seen it’s a thin line and obviously a lot of teams have shown that this year. We showed it today,” said McGuire.

Northern led in total yards (552-446), but Western held the Huskies to 3-of-14 success on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth downs.

Huff rushed for 130 yards on nine attempts, while Golladay contributed 113 receiving yards on five catches.

The Leathernecks open Missouri Valley Football Conference play next Saturday (Oct. 1) on the road, traveling to South Dakota State. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.

GAME NOTES: The 3-0 start matches the best start since the 2002 team started 4-0… The Leathernecks improved to 7-29 all-time versus the FBS, as all seven wins have come against teams from the Mid-American Conference… When the Leathernecks missed a field goal in the second quarter, it marked the first time this year not scoring when inside the redzone… Taylor surpassed 200 career tackles during the game, currently with 209 – the most among WIU active players… Lenoir (214) and Borsellino (158) now rank first and second, respectively, among the all-time receptions leaders at Western… Lesure caught his third career touchdown pass… Borsellino’s fifth career 100-yard game moves him into a tie for eighth all-time… Attendance was 15,496.