MACOMB, Ill. — Some of Western Illinois’ football players huddled near the yellow penalty flag on the field at the 10-yard line, hoping that it was a signal of a defeat denied, or a sign that there would be another chance to avoid their seventh crushing loss of the season.
When the officials broke their conference on the other side of the 10, the Leathernecks heard the news.
When the announcement was made of the penalty — illegal substitution on the Leathernecks — Clay McFadden’s 42-yard field goal was officially counted, giving Youngstown State a 28-27 win at Hanson Field on Saturday.
Western Illinois defensive back T.J. Limehouse, so good all day with an 11-tackle performance, ripped his helmet off and with two hands slammed it to the turf. Several of his teammates sat on the field, staring into the fall darkness.
This was a win that the Leathernecks, and first-year coach Myers Hendrickson, needed. They led 27-17 with 3 minutes, 9 seconds to play, and couldn’t finish.
"Our team always plays hard, they play hard all the way to the finish, it's something we do,” Hendrickson said. “Today we were just on the wrong side of it."
Such is life when you’re trying to build a program. The Leathernecks won three games in 2021 — one in the six-game spring season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and two in the normal fall schedule.
One win now can make a difference.
Quick fixes don’t happen in college football, even now in the world of the NCAA’s transfer portal, when you can go shopping for what you need. But a quick fix sometimes means cutting corners, and foundations you try to build can collapse from that.
It always takes time, whether you’re an FCS school like Western Illinois or a bigger school with better resources.
That’s something Hendrickson — a former Leatherneck player whose father, Mark, is a former WIU head coach — understands. He wants progress, but knows patience comes with that.
Hendrickson said he saw progress from his team on Saturday — they led in a game for the first time this season.
“We played, by far, our best complimentary football we've played," Hendrickson said.
But part of the rebuilding process is learning how to finish, how to win. The education was painful on Saturday.
The Leathernecks trailed 17-13 before getting touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Clay Bruno threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Naseim Brantley then, after true freshman linebacker Ryan Crandall’s interception, Bruno threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brantley.
Veteran teams know how to finish wins like this, but the Leathernecks don’t have a lot of that experience. They are a mix of transfers, returning players, and true freshmen — again, such is life when you’re rebuilding — and with a chance to put away this one, they let Youngstown State rally.
When you need a win, breakdowns are magnified. Breaks that go the way of experienced teams don’t go yours. All of that happened on Youngstown State’s next possession.
Quarterback Mitch Davidson threw a 48-yard pass to Brandon Alexander, then followed that with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Oliver, and WIU’s lead was 27-23. Instead of a PAT that would have cut the lead to three, a bad snap forced the Penguins to scramble, and on the broken play holder Paddy Lynch threw a two-point conversion pass to Trenton Gillison. It was 27-25, and now the Penguins could get a field goal to win the game.
Brantley secured the onside kick, but a third-down incompletion ended the Leathernecks’ possession and the Penguins, with 50 seconds left and one timeout, drove 58 yards in six plays to win.
The last two plays were runs of seven and eight yards by Jaleel McLaughlin, who rushed for 207 for the game. McFadden’s kick was good, and then there was the wait for the penalty ruling, and then the game was over.
“You know, it’s frustrating,” Crandall said. “It really showed our fight. Something like this is frustrating. All we can do is move on now.”
“It’s a tough loss,” Brantley said. “A tough one. But this is a time where we have to come back together and really execute on the areas we need, so we can get that win.”
Hendrickson’s message all year has been, “Pound the rock.” Keep hammering away, because the little cracks eventually lead to the rock’s destruction.
In a new season, under a new coach, with a new roster, that rock can seem like a mountain.
They’ll keep pounding, Hendrickson and the players said. A win, this win, could have been the crucial swing of the hammer.
Progress, Hendrickson said, still means something, even without a victory to go with it.
Then he rubbed his temple.
“Still hurts,” he said. “Still hurts.”
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning sports writer and contributor to Pen City Current.