Western Illinois returns to the postseason for the second time in three years. You can make an argument that no team had a tougher schedule than WIU through the first two months of 2017, but the Leathernecks handled themselves well.
They went on the road and crushed Northern Arizona by 18 points, obliterated FBS foe Coastal Carolina by 42 points, and knocked off Northern Iowa by nine. Losses to all three Dakota schools meant they needed to win out in the month of November to secure a playoff spot, and they did just that with victories over Illinois State, Indiana State and Southern Illinois to close out the year.
Meanwhile, Weber State has been the most underrated team in the FCS this season. The Wildcats are 9-2 and finished tied with Southern Utah atop the Big Sky. On their way to a 7-1 conference record, they went on the road to beat Sacramento State and Eastern Washington and handled Montana by 14 points.
You can make a strong case that this team should be undefeated, too. Weber State largely outplayed Cal in a loss to the Golden Bears in the second week of the season and was tied with Southern Utah in its head-to-head meeting until star quarterback Stefan Cantwell was injured.
FCS First Round Betting Odds
Western Illinois -4.5
Weber State +4.5
Keep an Eye On…
Weber State’s defense has been very good. Despite playing in the Big Sky, a conference known for its high-powered offenses, the Wildcats were able to limit opponents all year.
The ‘Cats are allowing teams to score just 16.6 points per game and are limiting opponents to 5.2 yards per play. That has made them easily the best defense in the Big Sky and one of the top units in the nation when you take into account the quality of opponents.
Taron Johnson is the leader of this unit and was the only player that was a unanimous first-team choice to the All-Big Sky team. Johnson was also named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts in turning Weber State’s secondary into a No Fly Zone as he has shut down opposing receivers all year. He will likely be tasked with stopping Western Illinois star receiver Jaelon Acklin, who has four times the number of receiving yards of anyone else on the Leathernecks and is the only reliable target for Sean McGuire.
Western Illinois doesn’t have much of a home-field advantage, but that hasn’t stopped it this season. The Leathernecks went 6-1 on the road with their only loss coming in the FargoDome to North Dakota State.
This team has criss-crossed the country, so that puts the Leathernecks in good position for the postseason. WIU is very unlikely to host a playoff game and will be traveling every weekend until it either wins the title or is eliminated. The Leathernecks have played in some very hostile environments, so Cedar City won’t bother them like it would other teams.
There aren’t many teams that feature tight ends anymore, but Weber State loves to use Andrew Vollert. He was an All-Big Sky first-team selection for the second time in as many seasons and was a constant option for Cantwell when he needed a third-down conversion. He led the team in receiving and Western Illinois has to be mindful of where he is on the field at all times.
Aside from Acklin, the Leathernecks don’t have a reliable option on offense. He has really come on as a senior and McGuire will try to force the ball his way to a fault at times. However, his numbers are largely skewed by one game. With Western Illinois down 38-6 to South Dakota, he received the ball over and over again and finished with a school-record 19 receptions for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
The Leathernecks should not be road favorites in this game. Weber State is too good to be a home underdog against WIU, so expect the Wildcats to prove the oddsmakers wrong. The defense will lead the way with Johnson smothering Acklin in a comfortable win for Weber State.
Pick: Weber State +4.5