The Gophers play the team with by far the best nickname of any team we've faced, at least this season, on Saturday when they face the WIU Leathernecks. Scott from Leatherneck Nation was nice enough to answer my sometimes inane and/or snarky queries.
JDMill: Western Illinois' nickname is the Leathernecks, and without any hesitation I believe that that is the best nickname of any team the Gophers have played in as long as I can remember. Please tell us, what is a Leatherneck, and how did Western Illinois get this nickname?
Steve Lawson: We are pretty proud of our Leatherneck nickname. The name actually comes directly from the nickname for members of the US Marine Corps and as such, we are the only non-military institution to have a nickname that comes from a branch of the military.
Originally, Western Illinois was a state teacher's college with the nickname of the "Fighting Teachers" until the 1920s, when our athletic director (also the head football, basketball and baseball coach), US Marine Colonel Ray "Rock" Hanson, petitioned the Navy to allow Western the use of the nickname. Due to his status as a WWI Marine hero, Western was granted the use of the "Leatherneck" nickname in 1927, as well as the official seal (anchor and globe). To honor "Rock" Hanson's contributions to our university, our football field (Hanson Field), costumed mascot (Rocky) and our live mascot (Colonel Rock III) are all named after him. There's a lot more to the Ray Hanson story, so if anyone is interested, you can find out more about his life and military service here.
JD: The Leathernecks went 3-8 last season, starting out 3-3 before dropping their final 6 games of the season and scoring only 4.5 points/game in the process of those final 6 games. What was the outlook heading into 2013 for this team?
SL: The last two seasons have been difficult, to say the least, with last season actually being a slight improvement over 2011, where we finished 2-9. That being said, coming into this year, I think the feeling has been one of cautious optimism. Last November, our head coach of 5 years was fired and we hired a coach that some of your fans may be a little familiar with, Bob Nielson. Nielson had been the head coach at UM-Duluth from ‘99-'03 and ‘08-'12, putting together a record of 100-26, with two Division II National Championships. I think that most Leatherneck fans realized that it's going to be probably a few years until he is able to put together a team that can compete for a conference championship again, but so far, he's done a pretty good job of starting to turn the team around. One "advantage" that Nielson has is that this year's team is very young. He's had a chance to start right away recruiting the kids that he wants to have on the team and in many cases, we've seen freshmen and transfers with the talent to start playing immediately.
JD: North Dakota State has been a bit of a thorn in the side of the Gophers in the last number of years and the Leathernecks share a conference with the Bison. To give Gophers fans some perspective, how do you think the Leathernecks match up against a team like the Bison?
SL: The Bison, especially the last few years, are an absolutely dominating team that can probably compete with nearly any college football team today outside of maybe the top 15 or so of the FBS (I-A) ranks. Their offense is exceptional, but their defense is one of the best and fastest I think I have ever seen. They've won two national championships, and with nearly all of their starters from the last two years back this year, they could easily take a shot at #3. However, we are not the Bison. We have a lot of talent, but we are a very young team that is inexperienced, and if we had to play the Bison today, we'd have a hard time stopping them. We're a long ways removed from the last time we went up to the Fargodome and defeated NDSU (in 2010) and I think we'd have difficulties on both sides of the ball.
JD: The Leathernecks have won their first two football games by a combined score of 76-15. That is impressive in any league, but the Leathernecks (I am going to work that nickname in as much as I can) have played Hampton, who has only scored a total of 16 points in their first 2 games, and Quincy, who is a Division-II team. What do you make of the Leathernecks (told you) through their first 2 games?
SL: So far, things are looking significantly better than last year. Our schedule last year vs this year is very similar to start off with: open against a traditionally mediocre FCS team (Hampton this year, Butler last year), then a decent Div. II team (Indianapolis last year, Quincy this year). All four of those game were wins for us, but whereas last year we won them by 8 and 10 points respectively, this year's games we won by 33 and 28. Our defense appears to be much improved over the past few years, and our offense is getting much better at moving the ball (something we had significant difficulties with last year). I think that the offense will still have some issues with some of the better defenses in our league, but the fact that we can put up 76 points in two games, when we only scored 107 points total all of last year...there's obviously an improvement there.
JD: Please tell us about how the Leathernecks scored 42 points against Hampton while not even putting up 300 total yards and averaging less than 3.5 yards/play.
SL: That's actually an easy one to explain...9 turnovers, including two fumbles returned for TDs and a school record 97-yard INT returned for a TD. We won the field position battle which led to short drives (only one over 50 yards) for scores. Our defense hasn't been perfect however; they've given up a few long plays that have burned us, pretty much setting up the only 2 TDs scored against us so far this year.
JD: The Leathernecks have 25 penalties through 2 games. That's... wow. That's a lot of penalties. I'm not sure I have a question here. Just... do you want to comment on that?
SL: Sure....it's a young team with a lot of talent for their age. Many of them, including our starting QB, have never played in a Div. I college game before the opener and have made some dumb mistakes. Coach Nielson has stated in interviews since the last game that the number of penalties that the team has committed is not acceptable and is something that they are going to focus on fixing.
JD: It seems safe to say that the Leathernecks (still isn't getting old) haven't played BCS conference caliber competition so far this season. What are the expectations of the fanbase heading into Saturday's game against the Gophers?
SL: That's very true. Minnesota is going to be a much better and more physical team than we have seen this year. I think if we want to stand any chance of keeping the game close, we've got to essentially eliminate all of those dumb mistakes. We'll have to continue to improve on offense, defense will have to keep up forcing the turnovers, and we need to play error-free football. I think that for many fans, the expectation is that we probably don't have the depth or experience at this point to keep up with the Gophers through all 4 quarters, but that hopefully our offense can put together a couple of solid drives, a few scores, and our D is able to come away with maybe a turnover or two and hold the Minnesota offense to something less than what they're averaging so far this year. Obviously we'd love to see another MVFC vs BCS team upset (like NDSU over K State, and Northern Iowa over Iowa State), but I think that's pretty unlikely. We've had some success in the past going against FBS schools...from ‘96-'03 we went 5-1 against MAC schools; only being down by 6 points in the 3rd quarter against eventual national champion LSU in ‘03; only losing by 4 points in the final minutes against the Arkansas Razorbacks in ‘08...but this is a much different team than those and we're still in something of a "rebuilding" phase at this point, so I think we're trying to be pretty realistic with our expectations this year.
JD: From an offensive standpoint, the Leathernecks put up some big numbers against Quincy. QB Trenton Norvell had 2 TD's through the air and 278 yards passing, and the team combined for over 270 yards on the ground. What is the offensive identity of this team and who are the stars?
SL: The QB, Norvell (a redshirt Fr transfer this year from Cincinnati) is obviously going to be one of the big playmakers. As I mentioned before, lots of talent, but he's young with essentially no college game experience (other than the two games so far). He's shown improvement even over these two games (159 yards/1 TD vs 278 yards/2 TDs) and I think will continue to improve as the season goes on. One really nice stat is that in 2 games, 61 attempts....no interceptions. Norvell has done a very good job so far of making smart decisions...throwing away the ball when he has to to prevent a sack or INT. Part of that also goes to the O-Line who has been able (so far) to give Norvell quite a bit of time to make quality plays.
At WR, we've got Sr. Fredson Salomon and Jr. transfer Hi-C Scott (how's that for a name?). They're averaging 15.6 and 14.6 yards per catch respectively so far, with both getting just under 100 yards receiving in the last game. In the last few years, passing hasn't really been the strong aspect of the typically anemic offense though, so there's still a lot of growth potential there as Norvell gets better at throwing the ball around.
Our big RBs are Jr. Nikko Watson and Jr. transfer JC Baker. Watson has been the primary RB for the last couple of years and is larger than the typical RB at 250 lbs and 6'0". He's a "boulder" who can reliably roll through for 5+ yards. Baker is the new guy, but alternated every few plays with Watson during the last game and was able to throw down 144 yards (10.3 y/carry) and 2 TDs, so I think we'll see the running plays fairly balanced between the two of them.
We're still heavily a rushing offense, so you'll probably see a lot of that until Norvell gets more comfortable.
JD: The Leathernecks are giving up less than 260 yards/game as a defense and under 64 yards/game rushing. I'm guessing a good portion of the low rushing numbers have to do with the opposition playing from behind, but tell us a bit about what this defense is designed to do and how they will try to stop the Gophers.
SL: At this point, forcing turnovers (primarily interceptions) is the strong suit of our defense; so far over the first two games, 7 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries. As I mentioned earlier, we've have been burned by a few long plays, however, so I wouldn't be surprised if that happens a couple of times this weekend. Two games with a lot of new guys doesn't really give you a great read though. As you mentioned, when teams play from behind, they often have to throw more and take a few more chances, which lead to a few more interceptions. Our D has done well at taking advantage of those situations, but it'll be interesting to see what they do when the other team has the lead. On 57 rushing attempts against us so far, we've held offenses to an average of 2.2 yards per attempt, however, I know that Minnesota has talent of a level that we have not seen yet this season and I expect that number to be higher this game.
JD: Okay, prediction time. Tell me who wins, what the score is, and a little bit about how you think the Leathernecks (couldn't resist one more mention) will perform in this game.
SL: Optimistically, I'd love to see us come away with a close win....
Realistically, I highly doubt that's going to happen. We may be able to hold things fairly close early on if we're able to not give up any huge plays, however, the inexperience and lack of depth compared to the Gophers will eventually catch up with us and they'll pull away in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. By the 4th quarter, Minnesota has their 2nd string guys in and we might get another score before it's all said and done. It's obviously hard to estimate how a young team is going to perform against a talent level that it hasn't seen, but based on how we did last year against Iowa State, and how much better the team is than last year, I'd be...well...not happy (you're never happy with a loss)...but maybe satisfied with something along the lines of 35-17, Minnesota wins it, as I said, primarily in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Most of the other fans that I've talked to also feel that keeping it within about 20 points is "acceptable". We walk away with some big game experience, hopefully no injuries (for either team...non-conference is rarely worth that), and a few extra $100k towards our athletics budget.
One side note, it'll be interesting to see over the next two weeks for us how the "mini round-robin tournament" ends up with Western, Minnesota and UNLV. We play UNLV (a team that the Gophers beat 51-23) on the 21st. If we're able to play well (something close to my prediction) against Minnesota, I think we stand a solid chance of adding another FCS vs FBS "upset" to the list when we play UNLV.
I'd like to thank you and your readers for taking a few minutes out of your day to learn a little bit about Leatherneck football and I'm looking forward to a great game between our Leathernecks and your Golden Gophers.
More from The Daily Gopher:
- Minnesota Football: Gophers vs. Western Illinois Preview - FCS Weak Is Here? Hooray...
- Minnesota Football: Depth Chart and Injury Report for Western Illinois
- Minnesota Football Releases Brick by Brick Episode #4, "The Return"
- Minnesota Football: Listen Up Gopher Football Fans! Donnell Kirkwood Has A Vision.
- Sunny Side Up- per Deck