Western Illinois isn't the flashiest team in the FCS, whether by name, national recognition or style of play. And the Leathernecks aren't afraid to admit that. Last year's star receiver Jaelon Acklin even told HERO Sports they embrace it.
But one thing you can't deny about WIU is it always finds a way to get the job done.
The Leathernecks snuck into the 2015 playoffs with a 6-5 record by beating No. 5 South Dakota State in double overtime in the final week and then won a postseason game. Last year, they made the playoffs again despite only playing four home games and going 6-1 on the road in the regular season.
This season, the Leathernecks started 2-4, but all of a sudden look like they have a decent shot to make a run at the playoffs after upsetting No. 17 Northern Iowa 31-17 last weekend to get to 4-4.
Nothing has come easy for this team over the years. But it always finds a way. And most impressively, WIU has done it with three different head coaches in four seasons.
Four-year starting quarterback Sean McGuire has led the gutsy Leatherneck teams that have persevered when odds were stacked against them.
Bob Nielson took the head coaching job at Missouri Valley Football Conference foe South Dakota and took his staff with him at the end of the 2015 season. Charlie Fisher came in and spent two seasons at the helm before taking the wide receiver coaching job at Arizona State. He was replaced this year by WIU assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator Jared Elliott.
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But McGuire has found plenty more positives than negatives in the coaching changes.
"Initially from the first coach to the second, it was a challenge just because it was a completely new staff," McGuire told HERO Sports. "We changed a lot of things. We went from a spread offense to the pro-style and changed our defense. But we have a mature team and I always say I’ve been as lucky as they've come with college coaches because I've had some of the best I think you can get. When coach Fisher left and coach Elliott became the head coach, we all were rooting for him. I was already close with coach Elliott.”
And in a way, the transitions have helped unify the locker room.
“Just going back to the first coaching change as an example, when it was initially happening, you don’t have a coach and the whole staff left," McGuire said. "You’re kind of just on your own for a month during the winter break and you don’t know who’s going to be the coach. But what you’re left with is just your teammates. You know that they’re not leaving and I think that strengthened our bond. We’ve had a mature team for years now. On and off the field we’ve been really close.”
The head coaching change really wasn't much of a transition this year, though. Elliott is a familiar face to lead the team, and the squad is starting to rally after the slow 2-4 start that featured a brutal nonconference slate and opening conference play against two ranked opponents.
Two wins in a row got the Leathernecks to .500. Now the three remaining games are back-to-back road games at Southern Illinois and USD before hosting Indiana State. Those opponents have a combined record of 9-15. While 7-4 is usually the magic number to get into the postseason, the Leathernecks aren't looking too far into the future.
"As a whole team we don’t look at it that way," McGuire said. "Maybe it’s in the back of your mind because everyone’s goal is to make the playoffs. But you can't be thinking about the playoffs. You have to put all your energy into the next game ahead.”
With two of the three coming on the road, WIU needs to improve from its 1-3 record away from Macomb. Having a senior quarterback should help in that regard.
McGuire, a two-time All-MVFC Honorable Mention and MVFC All-Newcomer Team player with 9,083 career yards passing and 70 touchdowns, hopes to extend the season as long as possible.
“It’s sad that it is winding down," McGuire said. "And I know we have plenty more football left to play. Obviously, it’s going to come to an end eventually and I’m so thankful to have been able to go here. I’ll cherish it forever.”