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Welcome Home: Western’s 1998 football team will be returning to campus this homecoming weekend to celebrate its 20-year reunion. Arguably the greatest team in WIU history, the 1998 Leathernecks finished 11-3 and won the Gateway Football Conference title with a 5-1 mark. The defense paved the way, allowing a nation-best 9.4 points per game in the regular season, en route to an appearance in the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs.
Western’s 1998 team advanced to the semifinals for the first time in school history, defeating Montana and Florida A&M before falling to Georgia Southern. The squad featured several all-conference honorees, including first-teamers Jeff Baker, David Bowens, Donnie Caldwell, James Milton, Aaron Stecker, and Dave Watson. James Milton was named the Gateway Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and would go on to win the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the country. Head coach Randy Ball was named the American Football Coaches Association Regional Coach of the Year.
The Series: Youngstown State has the edge in the all-time series, 19-12, but Western owns play at Hanson Field with eight of its victories occurring at home.
The teams haven’t faced each other since a 23-21 YSU decision in 2015. Saturday’s contest will serve as the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener for both teams as well as the MVFC Game of the Week.
Western’s Last Outing: Western’s 31-27 victory over then-No.15/16 Montana marked not only its first win of the season but also one of its largest fourth-quarter comebacks in program history.
Quarterback Sean McGuire pinned the Griz at their two-yard line with a pooch punt – just his second career punt – and Western’s defense allowed four yards in a three-and-out. Steve McShane returned the ensuing punt 58 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, and on the very first play of UM’s next drive, Justin Fitzpatrick and Zach Muniz combined on a forced fumble and recovery.
The takeaway led to McShane’s second trip to the end zone (an 11-yard reception) which cemented Western’s victory.
When trailing by 10 or more points in the final frame, Western has won eight career games (in the Division I era).
Notes vs. Montana
• On the second play of the game, Sean McGuire completed a 71-yard touchdown pass to John Brunner; his last throw of 70-plus yards was a career-long 78 yarder at Indiana State in 2015
• Eric Carrera recorded a career-best two interceptions against the Griz; Justin Fitzpatrick was the last Leatherneck to accomplish the feat with two at Coastal Carolina last season
• Steve McShane has returned a punt for a touchdown in back-to-back seasons; a 77-yard return vs. South Dakota last year ranks eighth longest in Western history.
Missouri Valley Players of the Week (Sept. 16): After scoring all four of Western’s touchdowns against Montana, Steve McShane (Special Teams Player of the Week) and John Brunner (Newcomer of the Week) were honored by the MVFC.
Brunner finished the first quarter with two touchdowns and 144 receiving yards – nearly triple the yardage from his first two games combined. Highlighted by a 71-yard reception, the redshirt-junior transfer from Butler Community College crossed the end zone twice in the first 2:11 of the game.
The Leathernecks were trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter when McShane worked a 58-yard punt return down the sidelines for a touchdown, and with less than two minutes remaining in the game, he added the go-ahead score on an 11-yard reception.
McGuire & Milestones: Sean McGuire is closing in on Western’s career marks in passing yards and touchdowns. He currently sits second all-time in the respective categories with 7,725 and 58, behind Paul Singer who played for Western from 1985-88. Singer sits atop WIU’s all-time marks in passing yards (8,257), completions (678), attempts (1,231) and touchdowns (62).
Momma, There Goes That Man: Running back and return specialist Steve McShane is on the bend of claiming a top 10 spot on the Leathernecks’ career rushing yards and all-purpose lists.
Brian Knuckles is 10th on the rushing list with 2,158 yards, and Nikko Watson owns the all-purpose spot with 2,954. McShane is currently managing, 1,853 and 2,935, respectively, and in a three-way tie for 10th all-time in career rushing touchdowns (16).
We Did It First: WIU has scored first in all three of its games this season – each score was a touchdown in the first quarter.
Montana State – A three-yard rush by Steve McShane on Western’s second drive
Illinois – A 20-yard pass from Sean McGuire to George Wahee on the very first drive of the game
Montana – A 71-yard pass from McGuire to John Brunner on the second play of the game
Close Calls: Two of Western’s three matchups this season have been decided by less than a touchdown and both were determined in the fourth quarter. A 35-yard field goal in the final five minutes lifted Montana State to a 26-23 victory in the Leathernecks’ season opener, and in the team’s home debut versus Montana, Steve McShane scored back-to-back touchdowns in the final six minutes of the 31-27 WIU win.
Western is 60-46 all-time in games decided by a touchdown or less.
The Best in the FCS: Western is the only school in the FCS to have a pair of linebackers ranked in the top-20 in solo tackles per game. Quentin Moon ranks fifth in the country with 7.7 stops while Zach Glisan ties for seventh with 7.0.
Congratulations, Coach: Jared Elliott claimed his first career win in Western’s 31-27 victory over previously ranked No.15/16 Montana.
Home-Field Advantage: At Hanson Field, the Leathernecks are now 34-4 against non-MVFC teams (since 1999). In the last 66 years, Western has compiled a record of 235-122-7 at home and 52 of those years saw the team finish at least .500 at home, including a perfect 6-0 record in 2010.
And the Award Goes To: The Leathernecks’ bye week fell on a perfect date for Justin Fitzpatrick, who used the weekend to pick up an award at the 42nd Annual Mid-America EMMY Gala (Sept. 22) in Kansas City.
There were 10 categories in the collegiate section, and Justin earned the NATAS Mid-America Regional Student Television Award for short form, non-fiction. His feature “More Than a Number: Sam Pryor’s Story” told the story of a fellow Leatherneck student-athlete who suits up for the University’s women’s basketball team. She lost her mother to cancer shortly before arriving at campus her freshman year.