Western Illinois quarterback Sean McGuire and wide receiver Jaelon Acklin sat in their living room weeks after a disappointing 44-34 loss to Southern Illinois on Nov. 19, 2016, and watched their Missouri Valley Football Conference foes make deep runs in the FCS playoffs. Then after the games, the two roommates would hit the field and run routes.
The loss to SIU, where the Leathernecks allowed 20 points in the fourth quarter, dropped them to 6-5 to end the season on a three-game losing streak and essentially eliminated any shot at the playoffs. So McGuire and Acklin watched the games they wished they were playing in. Then they went to work.
It’s no doubt paying off now. WIU is 5-1 and ranked No. 10 and 12 in the national polls. Those wins include a 52-10 dismantling of FBS Coastal Carolina. It’s a spot no one outside the program really expected the Leathernecks to be as a predicted middle-of-the-pack Valley team. After all, all three nonconference games were on the road and they play just four home games this season compared to seven away.
“We have to play with a chip on our shoulder,” Acklin told HERO Sports. “We’re from Macomb, Illinois. No one is going to really follow us that much. We play at a stadium that’s kind of like a high school stadium. There’s nothing really fancy about here. But we embrace that.”
Speaking of unexpected surprises, let’s introduce Acklin. He’s one of the best wide receivers in the FCS. And it didn’t happen by accident.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior came into this season with 21 catches for 364 yards and two touchdowns. In the first six games of 2017, Acklin has 46 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns. He also has 10 rushes for 195 yards and three touchdowns.
WIU needed someone to step up on the outside after Lance Lenoir finished his college career with several school records and is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
“I didn’t really expect to have this much success,” Acklin admitted. “Being behind Lance and seeing what he did and looking at his stats before the season, I was like ‘OK, seven touchdowns and 1,000 yards. I can try to do that.’ I’m just trying to put our team in the best spot to win. Luckily I have a good relationship with Sean.”
Acklin transformed his body during the offseason to become more explosive. He lost 25 pounds of fat and gained five pounds of muscle. It’s shown on the field. His longest touchdown catch this season is 62 yards while averaging 138 yards receiving per game. He’s scored on a 63-yard run play as well. Acklin’s breakout performance came in a 38-33 loss to currently undefeated South Dakota where he had 19 catches for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
“(The weight loss) made me a lot faster and it makes it easier to get out of breaks when you lose all that fat,” Acklin said. “My top speed is better and that helps me make the big plays. Before I would make the big catch, but wouldn’t be able to pull away from people for a touchdown. This year I’m able to do that.”
WIU hopes to pull away from the middle of the MVFC pack. USD and North Dakota State are both 6-0 overall with the Leathernecks having the second best record. Their 2-1 conference record is tied for second with Illinois State and Northern Iowa. They’re ready to continue climbing the conference and national ranks. And there’s no better time to do it this weekend when WIU visits No. 2 NDSU.
“We really would like to win a conference championship,” Acklin said. “We haven't done that here in awhile. We didn’t get off to a good start against South Dakota. We kind of lagged after the big Coastal Carolina win. But we’re still in a good spot. We just have to have things go our way. And then we really want to make the playoffs and make a run there.”
The way it looks right now, McGuire and Acklin won’t be watching many November and December games on the couch.