By: Daniel Massa – Sports Editor
The Dayton Flyers football team lost to Western Illinois, 24-7, Saturday afternoon at Welcome Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Championship.
The Flyers (10-2, 7-1 Pioneer Football League) lost the last two games of the season after starting 10-0, and Saturday’s game was their first-ever appearance in the FCS tournament.
After the majority of the first quarter consisted of what Dayton head coach Rick Chamberlin described as a feeling-out process, the Flyers got on the board with 38 seconds left in the quarter on a five-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Jeske.
Those would be the only points Dayton scored that day.
The drive that led up to the score started at the Western Illinois (7-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) 39-yard line after the Flyers’ defense stopped the Leathernecks’ senior running back Nikko Watson on fourth-and-1.
Three first-half red zone turnovers stopped Dayton drives that all had potential to end in at least a field goal. Jeske threw two interceptions and fumbled a snap on the goal line, which was recovered by WIU.
Jeske finished the game 13-for-27 in the air with 124 yards and three interceptions. He also gained 31 rushing yards and scored the Flyers’ only touchdown.
“We missed some opportunities there in the first half,” Chamberlin said after the game. “And that came back to haunt us there in the second half.”
“When you make mistakes like that, the way we did as an offense and as a team, against really good teams like Western Illinois, they’re going to take advantage of it,” senior wide receiver Cory Stuart said. “And that’s when things kind of started to slip away for us.”
Jeske helped lead the team to its first PFL championship since 2010. He started the season in the backup slot, but was substituted in the second quarter of the team’s season-opening win over Robert Morris, and took the reins the rest of the season.
“Alex [Jeske] has been a winner for us all year,” Chamberlin said. “You can’t let just one game that was not his best overshadow what he’s done this year for us. We would not be here but for Alex Jeske.”
Western Illinois tied the game on a 7-yard Watson touchdown run with 7:41 remaining in the second quarter. The Leathernecks added a field goal later in the quarter to take a 10-7 halftime lead.
Watson, who is a bruising six feet and 250 pounds, finished the game with 34 carries for 152 yards and one touchdown.
On several occasions throughout the game, up to four or five Dayton defenders were needed to take Watson to the ground.
“He’s a load, he really is,” Chamberlin said. “We talked about it all week, about tackling. And I thought for the most part we did an excellent job of that today.”
Western Illinois dominated the second half defensively, allowing Dayton’s offense only four first downs the entire half.
Western Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Sean McGuire had two second-half passing touchdowns, one in each quarter.
He found junior wide receiver Lance Lenoir on a 22-yard strike with 44 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and then connected with redshirt freshman receiver Stacey Smith on a nine-yard pass with 12:18 left in the game.
Despite the season-ending loss, Chamberlin and the team did not lose sight of the overall success the season was and what it meant for the program.
“It’s one of the most successful seasons Dayton’s ever had,” Chamberlin, who has been with the program for 41 years as a player, assistant and head coach, said. “I told [the team] afterward, I think it will be something this school, this community and the alumni will never forget, to experience this.”
There are five fifth-year seniors on the team who will not be back next year after exhausting their NCAA eligibility. Austin Alber, Matt Brown, Luke Johnson, Connor Kacsor and Nick Kaczkowski all have played their last game as a Flyer.
There are several other seniors who have the option to come back for a fifth year after they redshirted their freshman season. For those who decide to come back and for all the other returners, this season will prove to be a measuring stick that future teams will seek to match or exceed.
“This shows us what we have to do to get back to this point,” Chamberlin said.
He pointed out the work ethic the team had demonstrated since January, and how that helped pave the way for the season’s success.
“It’s an example to all those players who are returning next year, and I would hope that we would just follow that pattern again and be ready to play in 2016,” Chamberlin said.
Photo: The Dayton defense worked together all game to bring down Western Illinois’ powerful running back Nikko Watson (No. 41 in white). Watson, who stands at six feet and 250 pounds, finished the game with 152 rushing yards and one touchdown. Chris Santucci/Multimedia Editor