MACOMB, Ill. – Western Illinois could not have asked for a better performance from its defense in the football team’s 42-9 season-opening win over Hampton on Thursday night. The Fighting Leathernecks forced nine turnovers (six interceptions/three fumbles), and scored on three of those turnovers as the program snapped a six-game losing streak dating back to last year.
The game also marked the debut of head coach Bob Nielson. The team scored the most points in three years, and did not commit a turnover on offense, while the defense recorded five-or-more takeaways for the first time since the opening round playoff win in 2010.
Western began the scoring when junior safety Jonathon Rollins intercepted a pass and put Western 1st-and-10 on the Hampton 40. The Leathernecks needed 10 plays to score a touchdown, Nikko Watson’s 1-yard run. Kevin Kintzel rushed in for the 2-point conversion midway through the first quarter.
Hampton (0-1) responded in the second quarter with a 21-yard TD pass from Jaylian Williamson to Antwon Chisholm. Their 2-point try failed. On the ensuing drive, Nathan Knuffman pinned Hampton on the two. On second down, Kintzel forced a fumble and senior Ryan Demming scooped up the loose ball and scored a 6-yard TD – the first of his collegiate career.
The Pirates took the opening kick of the second half and marched down inside the redzone. JUCO transfer Dallas Nichols quickly put his name in the Western record book as he picked off a pass on the three and raced 97 yards for a touchdown. It marked the longest interception return in Leatherneck history, and the eighth-longest in Missouri Valley Football Conference history.
Both teams traded punts, then Kintzel struck again. The junior linebacker picked off Brian Swain on the 12 and ran in for his first collegiate score making it 28-6.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Trenton Norvell scored from a yard out early in the fourth quarter. Western used a Martinez Davis interception to take over in Hampton territory but the drive stalled. On the punt, Hampton could not get out of the way and Jeremy Curry recovered the deflected ball. Two plays later, sophomore quarterback Hayden Northern and junior Kareem Adewole both recorded their first Western touchdown on a 12-yard pass.
Adam Brown’s 40-yard field goal with just under four minutes left provided the final margin.
Rollins set a career-high with two interceptions in the game, the first two of his career. Kintzel recorded his second career pick and his second career forced fumble. Demming recovered his third career fumble. Devon Butler and Nichols both had their first career interception, while for Davis it was the sixth of his career (now three away from 10th place all-time).
"Well, it's always great to win. Give credit to our kids. They've worked hard, they surely deserved to win the football game today. There were a lot of good things,” said head coach Bob Nielson. “As I've said all along, our defense is certainly ahead of where our offense is right now. I think they have a chance to be a very good unit and they certainly showed that today. Forcing turnovers is one of the things that we talked about as one of the keys to this game... the fact is that you need to win the turnover margin [early in the year]. We not only won it, we won it substantially today and as a result got the score separated, so that was one of the good things.”
Overall the defense recorded eight tackles for a loss as Demming recorded the unit’s lone sack. Nichols also had a fumble recovery on the night to go with his five tackles. Western allowed 247 total yards of offense, just 88 on the ground, while gaining 262 in the game.
Offensively, Watson registered his sixth career 100-yard game tallying 108 on 27 attempts. Norvell completed 14-of-24 passes for 84 yards.
True-freshman Lance Lenoir, Jr. had five catches for 29 yards. Knuffman averaged 36.4 yards on his seven punts, with a long of 54 yards and placing four inside the 20-yard line. Both of his field goal attempts were blocked (42 and 23 yards).
Williamson threw for 113 yards to lead Hampton, but all three Pirate quarterbacks threw two interceptions. Chisholm led the receivers with 56 yards. Carvin Johnson and Delbert Tyler had 11 tackles each, two of the four Pirates with at least 10 tackles.
According to Nielson, despite the lopsided score there is certainly room for improvement.
“Some things we've certainly identified that we need to continue to improve upon. I thought we showed a little bit of a spark at times offensively, but not nearly as consistently as we need to be. We made some good plays in the kicking game; we also had some bad plays in the kicking game and that's got to be shored up. I'm disappointed that with the amount of time we spent on the kicking game in the preseason that we didn't execute better in some of those areas,” said Nielson. “It's a great way to start the season with a win. Now, as I told them on the field, our job is to make week two a week where we make a quantum leap of improvement and there's certainly room to do that."
Western will play host to Quincy University on Saturday, September 7th. Kickoff at Hanson Field is scheduled for 1 p.m.
GAME NOTES: The last time Western had at least five turnovers in a game was at Coastal Carolina in the 2010 road playoff win (4 INT/1 FR)… Western had not reached 40-plus points since putting 65 on MVFC-rival Illinois State in 2010… In all, 16 Leathernecks made their debut but only two were true-freshman (Lenoir, Jr. and Joey Borsellino)… Western finished tied for 10th nationally last year with 16 interceptions, now with six already to start the 2013 campaign… Watson recorded a 100-yard game for the third straight time to start a season, each of his three years as a Leatherneck… Thirteen of the team’s 15 pass receptions were by newcomers (2 by Salomon)… Temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees… Western won the time of possession battle, 30:37 to 29:23… Western was 6-of-17 on third down and converted 2-of-3 on fourth down. Hampton was 4-of-11 on third down… The Leathernecks also committed 10 penalties totaling 81 yards… The 42 points scored in a season-opener were the most since putting 45 up against Valparaiso in the 2010 opener. It was also just the third time scoring 40-plus in the opener since 1998.
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