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Coach after offensive balance in first season at WIU
Division II, Division III or Football Championship Subdivision, one thing is always the same for first-year Western Illinois football coach Bob Nielson, no matter the level.
“When you have fall birthdays, you never get to celebrate them,” said Nielson, who will turn 54 years old the day his Leathernecks open Missouri Valley Football Conference play against South Dakota on Sept. 28 in Macomb.
Nielson will celebrate another milestone when he coaches his first FCS game Aug. 29 in WIU’s season opener against Hampton.
A two-time national champion at Division II Minnesota-Duluth, Nielson led the Bulldogs to five Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles and a 100-26 mark in 10 seasons. When Mark Hendrickson was let go after last season, the Marion, Iowa, native jumped at the chance to get into one of the toughest FCS leagues in the country.
“I know a lot of coaches in this league, and understand the level of football that this represents,” Nielson said. “Where I was at my career, I was looking for another kind of challenge, and this presents definitely that, and with great challenge brings with it great opportunity, so we’re going to work as hard as we can to make as much progress as we can.”
Western Illinois finished 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the MVFC last season. The Leathernecks have had two winning seasons in their last five, but have reached the playoffs only once in the last nine years. They return 15 starters, seven on offense, which scored a league-low six touchdowns in eight MVFC games last year.
Nielson’s starting quarterback at Minnesota-Duluth, Chase Vogler, ran the option and nearly rushed for as many touchdowns (17) as he passed for (19) last year. The Bulldogs’ third-leading rusher, Logan Lauters, scored 48 points by himself.
Western Illinois scored 107 points last year, 50 of which came in wins over Butler (23-15) and Division II Indianapolis (27-17) in its first two games.
Macomb, however, will not be the first place Nielson has inherited a rebuilding project.
He took Division III Wartburg (Iowa) College from a 5-5 mark in 1992 to a 9-2 season the next year in his third season. The next two years, Wartburg went 10-2 and 9-1.
At Wisconsin-Eau Claire, another Division III school, he led the Blugolds from a 5-5 season to a 7-3 mark the next season. The following season they went 10-3 and advanced to the third round of the playoffs.
Nielson had his only losing season at Minnesota-Duluth in his first year there in 1999, when the Bulldogs went 3-8. In the last five years, Minnesota-Duluth went a combined 62-7, reached the playoffs every year, and won two national championships.
Nielson signed three junior college players in his first recruiting class, defensive back Marquette Privott (College of DuPage), wide receiver Hi-C Scott (Glendale (Ariz.) Community College) and offensive lineman Martin Woods (Glendale Community College).
Western Illinois returns five all-conference players from last season, two of them in the defensive backfield, and will head to fall camp in search of better offensive balance, Nielson said.
Quarterback Hayden Northern, a sophomore who started two of four games last year, returns along with four offensive linemen. The Leathernecks signed two high school quarterbacks in February and also return redshirt freshman J’Vaughn Williams at the quarterback spot.
Western Illinois also has two fullbacks back from last year, Nate Bowman and Larry Harris, as well as second-string running back Nikko Watson.
“It’s a little bit more balanced league,” Nielson said. “We ran the ball a lot when we were ahead in the fourth quarter, which made (Minnesota-Duluth’s stats) a little more skewed. The quarterback we had at Duluth was an outstanding runner. The biggest diff that I’ve seen, defenses are so athletic here that it’s gotta be balanced. You’ve gotta have a system that allows you to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically and puts pressure on defenses. If you’re one-dimensional in this league, you’re going to struggle.”