Story and photo courtesy of Western Illinois Athletics
VERMILLION, S.D. – Making his first start at quarterback in more than a year, senior Wil Lunt threw for 170 yards and career-high tying two touchdowns while the defense made a stop on the final drive in a 24-17 win for Western Illinois at South Dakota on Saturday afternoon (Oct. 6). The win snapped an eight-game road losing streak for the Fighting Leathernecks (3-2 overall, 1-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference).
Western erupted in the second half scoring three TDs, ending a streak of 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown.
Western’s defense forced a Coyote punt to start the second half. Kieron James broke through untouched and blocked the punt. Quenton Keating recovered on the 22. Three plays later Lunt found Fredson Salomon down the middle for a 25-yard TD pass to tie the score following Smith’s PAT.
That was Lunt’s first TD pass since the Sam Houston State game in 2010. Salomon also recorded his first touchdown catch as a Leatherneck.
Ryan Demming recorded a key sack on fourth down, giving Western the ball over on downs, but the offense could not manage a first down and was forced to punt. Theon Dixon picked off Josh Vander Maten’s first pass of the drive, giving Western the ball on the 40. Lunt hit Charles Chestnut, who was pulled down inches from the endzone. Caulton Ray on the next play used a second effort to score.
The Coyotes used a 55-yard kickoff return by Jasper Sanders to get into Western territory. On 3rd-and-long, Western looked to have Anthony Williams bottled up after a pass completion, but he broke through for a 41-yard score to tie the game at 17-all late in the third quarter.
Western took control in the fourth quarter. On a direct snap to Ray, he pitched it back to Lunt who rolled to his right. Salomon was wide open and the result was a 66-yard TD pass which proved to be the game-winner.
On its final offensive drive, Western made South Dakota (1-4, 0-2) burn its final timeouts. The Leatherneck defense forced two incompletions, stopped a pass short of a first down, then Eddy Holtschlag sacked Vander Maten on fourth down and forced another fumble recovered by Luke Venegoni. Western used the victory formation to secure its first road win since the 2010 NCAA playoff win at Coastal Carolina.
“I’m very proud of the effort of the 60 Leathernecks here today. This game was a bit of a knock-down, drag-out game. Every play wasn’t pretty but it came down to playing tough, hard-nosed football for four quarters. I’m proud to say we played that way today in all four quarters,” said head coach Mark Hendrickson. “I certainly give South Dakota credit, they played well. Our guys came through in the fourth quarter. It was evident to me in the fourth quarter, offensively I think we wore them out a bit and Nikko (Watson) had some nice runs in the fourth quarter, and that’s a great credit to the linemen up front.”
Western took the opening kickoff to open the game, but South Dakota forced a 3-and-out on its first drive and took over at midfield. The Coyotes drove five plays but the Leatherneck defense held forcing a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Robb.
On a completed pass by Josh Vander Maten, Kieron James forced a fumble and Jonathon Rollins recovered at midfield. The Leathernecks drove deep into Coyote territory, and went 45 yards on 11 plays but were stopped on the three. Pat Smith nailed a 21-yard field goal to tie the score early in the second half.
The Leathernecks drove into Coyote territory late in the second quarter, but consecutive sacks forced a punt. USD drove 76 yards for a touchdown, capped by Marcus Sims’ 8-yd TD run.
Despite getting outgained 168-106 in total yards in the first half, Western held a time of possession edge 17:21-12:39. All five of Lunt’s passes went to a different receiver. But thanks to an explosive second half, the senior QB finished 10-of-20 for 170 yards and two scores while picking up his first career win as a starter.
“I thought Wil played outstanding for start number one (this year). You’re in a tough environment, but Wil has been in tough environments in the past but not for awhile,” said Henrickson. “He definitely held things together, there were moments the offense didn’t look very good but without a doubt Wil held that group together and he threw the ball really well.”
Salomon caught three passes for 109 yards and his first two TDs. On the ground, Watson recorded his fifth career 100-yard game gaining 138 yards on 21 attempts.
Venegoni recorded a career-high nine tackles and recovered a fumble. Rollins added seven stops to go with his fumble recovery. Western out-gained USD 350-293 and held a near five minute edge in time of possession (32:21-27:39).
Vander Maten completed 18-fo-31 passes for 179 yards and a score but committed two turnovers. Tim Marlette recorded a game-high 10 tackles.
The Leathernecks return to the state next Saturday (Oct. 13) for a 6 p.m. kickoff against South Dakota State.