W. Illinois-Dayton Preview
(STATS) - The relaxed feeling that resonated throughout the room turned to jubilation as Dayton saw its name appear during Sunday's FCS playoff selection show.
The Flyers already knew they were heading to the postseason for the first time in school history after locking up the Pioneer Football League title, but they had no idea their 10-1 season would result in hosting a first-round game coming from the only non-scholarship conference to have an automatic playoff bid.
Western Illinois, receiving the last of the five selections awarded to the deep Missouri Valley Conference, comes to town Saturday. The PFL didn't even receive an automatic entry until 2013, when the tournament expanded to 24 teams.
Making the home date even more shocking, Dayton was coming off a 27-17 loss the day before to a sub-.500 Drake team and played just one school - beating Duquesne 24-13 on Sept. 19 - that made the playoffs.
The Leathernecks became eligible with a 30-24 win over then-No. 5 South Dakota State in their season finale.
"It was a surprise that we were going to host being a first-time entry into the playoffs," coach Rick Chamberlin said. "Unfortunately we didn't get to finish up that 11-0 season, but as we always say, you grieve for 24 hours and you move on to the next one. Or, if you win, you celebrate for 24 hours and you move on. This gave them a shot in the arm to see that we're going to be hosting."
Western Illinois' viewing party was much more tense. Bob Nielson, the MVC Coach of the Year, didn't know if his team's 6-5 mark would be good enough for the school's first playoff appearance since 2010.
The committee, though, rewarded the Leathernecks for having the toughest schedule in the FCS while going 3-3 against the playoff field. They routed Eastern Illinois 33-5 in their season opener and led then-No. 2 Coastal Carolina in the fourth quarter Sept. 19 before suffering a tough 34-27 road loss.
Their 5-3 mark in the Missouri Valley, including wins over the Jackrabbits and at Northern Iowa, also was a great resume booster.
"We certainly feel deserving of the opportunity. I knew it was going to be close," Nielson said. "When those names started popping up on the board - and a lot of those names that we had beaten - honestly even though it was down to the end, I was very confident our name was going to show up."
Both Nielson and running back Nikko Watson, rushed for 1,018 yards and 13 touchdowns after finishing with 178 and a score against SDSU, pointed to a 59-7 blowout loss at reigning four-time FCS champion North Dakota State on Nov. 7 as the season's turning point.
Watson rushed four times for one yard in that contest in the humbling defeat, but the Leathernecks followed that with back-to-back wins to sneak into the playoffs.
"We had a team meeting and basically everyone just called each other out," Watson said. "We're not going to point fingers, everyone owned up to their mistakes. We knew what we had to do to get back on track. We knew we were a very good football team and did everything these past two weeks just to prove that."
The Flyers overcame their own adversity. Senior running back Connor Kacsor, last year's PFL Offensive Player of the Year, tore his ACL in a non-contact practice drill after the fourth game.
They also relied heavily on Alex Jeske, who took over during the season opener and started the rest of the way. He's thrown for 10 touchdowns while running for five more and is one of 20 finalists for the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year award.
"The thing I told the team - and everybody believes it - the University of Dayton football team is not successful because of one individual, whether it's Connor Kacsor, Rick Chamberlin or anyone else. It's a true team," Chamberlin said. "Our guys really exemplified that this year. Every game, it seemed like someone stepped up to make a play when we needed it."
It's part of the reason Nielson, in his third season at Western Illinois after winning a pair of Division II national championships at Minnesota-Duluth, knows his squad is in for a tough challenge Saturday.
The winner moves on to face No. 2 overall seed and Missouri Valley co-champion Illinois State on Dec. 5.
"Getting our program back to where we're competing nationally was the goal. That's what this week represents," Nielson said. "They're a very good football program, traditionally one of the top programs in that league. I've watched them a little bit and they're extremely sound fundamentally. You've got to bring your 'A' game."