First Look

FIRST LOOK – After big win, Griz open home slate against Western Illinois


Montana football is the talk of the country after beating FBS No. 20 Washington 13-7 in Seattle to open the season.

The win pushed the Griz up to No. 4 in the country and will have excitement, already high, turned up to Mount Everest levels as they return for their home opener this week against Western Illinois.

“It was definitely the coolest experience in my life, winning that game and seeing the Griz in the media all weekend long,” said UM junior linebacker Marcus Welnel, who was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week after recording 12 tackles and the game-clinching pick against the Huskies. “It’s good for the Griz to be back like that.”

Montana played two home games in the 2021 spring season, but the matchup against the Leathernecks will be the first non-exhibition game at Washington-Grizzly since the 73-28 playoff win over Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 5, 2019 in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.

It will also be a part of the Big Sky-Missouri Valley Football Conference Challenge, another data point in the battle between the conferences generally regarded as the two best in the FCS.

Western Illinois was picked 11th – dead last – in the preseason MVFC poll but battled defending MAC champion Ball State in its season opener, dragging the Cardinals to a 7-7 tie at halftime before eventually falling 31-21.

The Leathernecks beat Montana, 31-27, in Macomb in 2018, Hauck’s first year back with the Grizzlies.

“They had a real battle in a game with Ball State, who was picked to win the MAC,” Hauck said. “So that’s a good football team. Western’s offense can light it up. They threw for a bunch of yards and then we’re well aware that they beat us last time we played, and that was a major downer and disappointment that season.”


Location: Macomb, Illinois

Nickname: Leathernecks. The name is a slang reference for members of the the United States Marine Corps. Former WIU athletic director Ray Hanson, a former colonel in the Marine Corps, received permission to use the name and the school’s bulldog mascot, another symbol of the Marines, in the 1920s. Western Illinois is the only non-military institution in the country to have its nickname and mascot derived from a branch of the military service.

Founded: 1899, as Western Illinois State Normal School.

Enrollment: 6,965 as of the spring 2021 semester.

Stadium: Hanson Field holds 16,368 fans. Built in 1950 and expanded in 2007, it was the training camp home of the St. Louis Rams from 1996 to 2004.


Elliott, the former co-offensive coordinator at WIU, was promoted to head coach after the 2017 season. That campaign marked the last time WIU made the FCS playoffs.

It’s his second go-round in Macomb, as he also spent a year there as an offensive assistant coach in 2012.

That came after a career at Miami (Ohio), where he played both quarterback and wide receiver from 2004 to 2007.

Elliott’s coaching career has also included time as an assistant at Missouri Southern State, Miami (Ohio) and Carthage University.

The 2018 Leathernecks finished 5-6, a disappointing result considering the team returned All-American quarterback Sean McGuire and future NFL defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, now of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Elliott’s first season, his squad lost its opener 26-23 at Montana State, beat the Grizzlies and lost its last two games by a combined seven points to miss the playoffs. WIU has won just two games — 38-34 against South Dakota in 2019 and 27-24 over Youngstown State last spring — over the last two seasons and have not won a road game since winning at Southern Illinois on November 3 of 2018.



Western Illinois quarterback Connor Sampson vs Missouri State / courtesy of WIU athletics

Sampson lit up Ball State in the opener, throwing for 365 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

It’s technically his third year as a starter after he took over the job in 2019 and was then named second-team all-MVFC in the six-game 2021 spring season despite WIU’s 1-5 record.

From Belleville, Michigan, Sampson led the MVFC in passing yards per game in the spring with 290.7.

“Even though they threw for 400 yards on Ball State last week, I think they’ll be insistent on trying to be balanced and get the run game going,” Hauck said. “That’s what they want to be. Whether they can be or not, we’ll see.”


If Sampson lit up Ball State in WIU’s opener, Houston was another level even beyond that.

Western Illinois senior Dennis Houston, pictured here in the spring against North Dakota/ courtesy of WIU athletics

The senior from San Antonio finished with 12 catches for 237 yards and two touchdowns. That performance was enough to put him first in the country in receptions (only two other players had double-digit catches in Week 1) and receiving yards (by an even 50 yards over the next-closest player, Southern Illinois All-American Avante’ Cox).

Houston, who spent his freshman year at Houston Baptist and his sophomore year at Fullerton College, was first-team all-MVFC in the spring, leading the conference in both receptions and receiving yards per game.



Lawson was first-team all-Southland Conference at DB and punt returner in his one year at Lamar in 2019 before transferring to WIU.

Then he led the Leathernecks with 54 tackles and took his only punt return to the house in the six-game spring season.

Michael Lawson

Then he had 14 tackles and two forced fumbles in the fall opener against Ball State.

That’s a hell of a start to his FCS career for the defensive back from Hayward, California, after two years at City College of San Francisco.


After four years at WIU as, at best, a rotational defensive end, Preston broke into the lineup in the 2021 spring season as the Leathernecks’ best pass rusher.

Eryk Preston

He had 2 1/2 sacks and 4 1/2 tackles for loss in six games, and was named honorable mention all-MVFC.

He was the lone defensive player to receive preseason all-conference recognition for WIU heading into the fall season, appearing on Phil Steele’s all-MVFC third team.

“They challenge you, they play a lot of man coverage,” Hauck said. “And they want to challenge you so you have to win against man and and you have to make some plays. … That all makes it hard to do what I want out of our offense this week. So we’ve got to have a big week and good prep and we got to go execute.”

Photos courtesy of Western Illinois Athletics. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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