FOOTBALL: Tops travel to Wofford

Michael Casagrande

The path to a return visit to the Division I-AA championship game is taking a familiar route for Western.

A 45-7 win over Jacksonville State last week means the Hilltoppers will have to win on the road to return to Chattanooga, Tenn.

Western (9-3) will travel to No. 3 Wofford for a 3 p.m. quarterfinal match-up Saturday. The game will be televised on NBC-40, local cable channel 7. The Terriers (11-1) have not lost since falling to I-A Air Force in their season opener. Wofford defeated North Carolina A&T 31-10 last week in the first round.

Last season, Western had to travel to No. 2 Western Illinois and No. 3 Georgia Southern to earn the right to play No. 1 McNeese State in the championship.

Saturday’s game will be the fourth in as many years in which Western has faced a Southern Conference team in the playoffs. The Toppers are 1-2 in the past three contests, with their lone win coming at Georgia Southern last season.

Western will enter the Wofford contest playing some of its best football of the season. After losing to Southern Illinois 28-24 on Nov. 1, the Toppers have been dominant.

The Toppers have outscored their last three opponents 106-23 since losing the Homecoming game to the Salukis.

“We have a lot of confidence right now in what we are doing,” coach David Elson said. “It all goes back to we haven’t panicked and try to change things. We are running the same plays we were running in September and I think the guys are getting a better feel for things.”

Western will look to continue its hot streak against an unassuming power. Wofford went undefeated in the Southern Conference despite being a small private school.

With an enrollment of 1,100, Wofford is the second smallest school in Division I. One out of every six males enrolled at Wofford play football for the Terriers.

The key to victory for Western Saturday will be the ability to move the ball on the ground. The Terriers and Toppers enter the game ranked No. 7 and No. 8 respectively in rushing offense.

Wofford, like Western, touts a stingy rush defense, allowing only 112.7 yards on the ground per contest. Western allows 117.3 yards per game.

Wofford is one of the few teams in the nation to run the wingbone offense, but the Western defense welcomes the change in offensive looks, senior linebacker Erik Dandy said.

“We need to stop the run,” Dandy said. “They run an offense that each man needs to worry about his own responsibilities, and not try to do too much. If all 11 guys worry about what they are supposed to do, then we should be able to stop the run.”

A first quarter scoring outburst was all Western needed to dismiss Jacksonville State from the playoffs Saturday. The Toppers scored three touchdowns in their first four plays and led 21-0 only 4:19 into the game.

The fast start was encouraging after coming off a two-week break, Elson said.

“You never expect it to go that well that quickly,” Elson said. “When you go up 21-0, you are in the driver’s seat.”

With the offense scoring with efficiency, the Western defense kept the Ohio Valley champion Gamecocks from ever getting started. JSU gained only 50 yards in the first half and failed to complete any of its six pass attempts.

Sophomore safety Dennis Mitchell led the defense with nine tackles and three sacks.

JSU coach Jack Crowe said he was surprised that the Toppers handled his team so easily.

“I guess it couldn’t have been any worse,” Crowe said Saturday. “They looked very fresh, very focused. We are a lot more competitive than we played today.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].