The Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks, an FCS program from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, opened their season with a win last weekend, and look to keep the momentum going as they take on the 18th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Saturday.
This contest represents the third time these two programs will have met on the field. Wisconsin holds a 2-0 advantage over WIU, with both wins coming at home. The last time these teams played was back in the 2006 football season.
The Badgers, of the Big Ten Conference, battled against powerhouse LSU last weekend. Wisconsin held a 24-13 advantage heading into the fourth quarter, but the Tigers mounted a comeback and scored 15 unanswered points in the final frame to take a 28-24 win at Houston's NRG Stadium.
Western Illinois took on Valparaiso in college football's opening week, and handed the Crusaders a 45-6 loss in Macomb, Illinois. The Leathernecks scored double-digit points in the first three quarters, while simultaneously holding Valpo scoreless. WIU finished the 2013 season with a 4-8 overall record, including a 2-6 mark in conference play that netted the team a ninth-place finish in the MVFC.
The Leathernecks last season made up an offense that couldn't keep pace with the rest of a very deep and talented Missouri Valley Conference, which is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, conference at the FCS level. Things have improved, as WIU accumulated 593 yards of total offense in last week's win, including 320 yards through the air. Quarterback Trenton Norvell, a junior, threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, but was on fire in his first start this year. He completed 20-of-28 passing for 320 yards and four touchdowns, including a long of 40 yards.
His offensive weaponry appears to be much deeper than it was a season ago. Junior Lance Lenoir (39 receptions, 489 yards, seven touchdowns) leads the receiver group, also consisting of Hi-C Scott (32 receptions, 458 yards, three touchdowns) and Joey Borsellino. Throw in tight end Taylor Hill for good measure, and Norvell seems much more equipped to handle the offense.
Although the Leathernecks lost starting running back Nikko Watson (139 carries, 503 yards, five touchdowns) to graduation, last year's MVFC Newcomer of the Year, J.C. Baker (1,149 rushing yards and 32 receptions) should fill that slot nicely. WIU did lose a crucial member of the team's offensive line in Jimmy Holtschlag, however.
The team's defense was actually one of the better ones in the league last season after ranking second in total defense (305.3 total ypg allowed) behind eventual FCS national champion North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference. Up front on the line, Chip Holtschlag (42 tackles, six tackles for loss) teams with senior Dino Durley (52 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks).
Three standout playmakers combine to make for a formidable linebacking corps, led by junior J.J. Raffelson (59 tackles, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry in six games). Kevin Kintzel (74 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, six pass breakups) and Luke Venegoni (49 tackles, five tackles for loss) will be a dynamic group. Venegoni (eight tackles, .5 tackles for loss) and Raffelson (seven tackles) had a strong first showing last week.
Cornerback Martinez Davis was a steady producer last year after recording seven pass breakups and four tackles for loss in 2013, and added four stops and a pass breakup last weekend. He's joined in the secondary by David McDaniel (led team with nine tackles and an interception against Valpo) and Jonathon Rollins. The unit may have an easier time against Wisconsin since quarterback Joel Stave has been shelved with an injury. Stave missed last weekend against LSU, and Tanner McEvoy didn't perform exceptionally well in his stead.
The injury to Stave, which head coach Gary Andersen said is soreness in his throwing shoulder, has put his playing status in doubt indefinitely. Meanwhile, McEvoy will continue to be the starter under center for the Badgers after completing 8-of-24 pass attempts for 50 yards and two interceptions against LSU.
"Joel has been dealing with some issues with his throwing shoulder for the last couple of weeks and we have come to a decision, after talking with Joel, that the best thing for him right now is to shut it down and give him some rest," Andersen said. "It was a tough decision because Joel is a great competitor and has a tremendous desire to help this team. We will continue to monitor his progress but we're not putting a timetable on his return at this time."
A few other injuries have plagued Wisconsin's offense through the preseason and just one week of the regular season. Star running back Melvin Gordon (16 carries, 149 yards, one touchdown last week) missed most of the second half of the contest against LSU after what is being called an injury to his hip. Gordon said earlier in the week that he is good to go for this weekend's contest.
Either way, backup rusher Corey Clement, who carried the ball 15 times for 45 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, is waiting in the wings.
McEvoy found receiver Alex Erickson three times - the only player who had multiple receptions - for 33 yards against LSU, and Austin Traylor once for nine yards. He should have better success against the sub-division defense of WIU.
The Badgers only returned three starters to the team's defense from 2013, so there was a lot of room for newcomers to step up and earn playing time. Senior linebacker Marcus Trotter was second against LSU with 12 tackles, and added 2.5 tackles for loss, .5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Junior safety Michael Caputo, who is one of the returning starters to the defense, led the team with 15 stops, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
Trotter's line mate Joe Schobert registered eight tackles, including two for a loss, one sack and added a forced fumble to his stat line against LSU. Up front on the defensive line, redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih made his presence felt in his the game with six tackles and a half-sack.