With another top-10 road victory under their belts, the No. 2 ranked North Dakota State Bison return to the Fargodome for another clash with one of the FCS’s top teams. The Herd will face off against Western Illinois, ranked No. 12 in this week’s FCS Coaches Poll following consecutive victories over Northern Iowa and Missouri State.
Western Illinois has been able to form continuity under head coach Charlie Fisher and co-offensive coordinator Doug Malone, both in their second seasons. The Leathernecks have been a dominant team on the road this season, posting a 4-0 record away from home. WIU has improved dramatically across the board, and at 5-1, are one win away from tying their total from 2016.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see how well they’ve played on the road,” head coach Chris Klieman said on Monday. “You have a veteran experienced team like that, you go on the road, it doesn’t bother them.”
The Leathernecks have made a drastic improvement offensively from last year. WIU’s 41.8 points per game this season is nearly a 13-point improvement in scoring. The emergence of sophomore running back Max Norris has revitalized the Leathernecks rushing attack, currently ranked fourth in the Missouri Valley in yards rushing per game. Norris has racked up 447 yards and 4 touchdowns on 75 carries, and his 6.0 yards per carry rank behind only Lance Dunn as the best in the conference among running backs with at least 60 carries.
Senior wide receiver Jaelon Acklin has been a dynamo for WIU and quarterback Sean McGuire. Acklin’s 46 receptions, 138 yards receiving per game, and eight scores are all tops in the conference. His 828 receiving yards are first in the conference by more than 300 yards.
“He’s been a matchup nightmare for everybody because he has the ability to get open and do things with it after the catch,” Klieman commented of Acklin.
The wide receiver posted a career performance in WIU’s lone loss. Against South Dakota, Acklin caught 19 passes for 343 yards and three scores. His domination of the Coyotes earned him a nod as both the Missouri Valley and STATS FCS offensive player of the week.
“He knows where he fits within that offense,” Klieman said. “It’s a really friendly offense for him because they’re able to move him around everywhere.”
McGuire has also turned heads this season, becoming one of the top signal callers in the conference. “I’m really impressed with McGuire,” Klieman said. “I think he’s a top quarterback in the FCS. I really appreciate his game.”
The junior has completed 66.9 percent of his passes, third best in the conference, and piled up 1,611 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. He was named Missouri Valley player of the week following his shredding of UNI. McGuire threw for 334 yards and 3 touchdowns in the victory against the Panthers.
“He’s just making really great decisions on where to go with the football,” Klieman stated. “He’s a competitor. He’s a winner. He’s making winning plays, and that’s what you see on film.”
McGuire, an unflappable quarterback, will face the Missouri Valley’s stoutest pass defense. NDSU has allowed only 109.8 yards through the air per game and have intercepted 11 passes. The Bison went until last Saturday’s game against Youngstown State without conceding a passing touchdown.
Under the stewardship of first-year defensive coordinator Tony Grantham, the Leathernecks have made strides in improving their defense as well.
Junior defensive end Khalen Saunders has become one of the conference’s elite pass rushers. Saunders has tallied 5 1/2 sacks and 3 forced fumbles to lead the Missouri Valley in both categories. His 8 tackles for loss this season are fourth in the conference.
Behind Saunders, linebacker Brett Taylor has been a force in stopping the football. The senior captain and three-time Missouri Valley defensive player of the week has made 87 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 1 1/2 sacks on the season. Taylor was named to the Buck Buchanan watch list to begin the season.
Both Justin Fitzpatrick and Tyrin Holloway have intercepted three passes this year to lead the secondary.
“They have a lot of guys returning from last year, led by the linebacker (Taylor). I think Taylor is a great player,” Klieman said.
While WIU’s defense has improved, there are still areas the Bison can exploit. The Leathernecks have surrendered 245.7 yards passing per game and 16 aerial scores so far this season. Easton Stick will look to take advantage of this weakness. The junior has yet to throw an interception this season, and his play has improved all season long.
NDSU has reason to be excited following their challenging triumph over YSU, but Klieman cautioned against any prognosticating that his side can rest easy following the win. “What any team did the previous Saturday has no bearing on the next Saturday,” the head coach stated. “You can forget about it. It’s a one week battle, and we’ve got our hands full with Western Illinois.”
Against a motivated Leathernecks team, the Bison will need yet another strong performance to keep their perch on top of the conference.