FOOTBALL: Tops to host OVC champ on Saturday

Michael Casagrande

A week of nervous waiting ended with surprising joy for coach David Elson’s Hilltoppers.

With eight days between Western’s final regular season win at Youngstown State and the Division I-AA playoff selection show, the Toppers could do little but wait.

The surprise wasn’t that Western (8-3, 5-2 Gateway Conference) made the 16-team field; it was the site of its first round game.

Western will host Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Smith Stadium.

Playing at home took Elson by surprise, but he will not argue with the selection committee.

“I think we felt confident that we would be in,” Elson said. “But you never know about the home game thing. I still don’t know how they determine that.”

Freshman quarterback Justin Haddix was not worried about making the playoff field. Haddix was driving back to Bowling Green from his home in Jackson when his mother phoned him with the news.

“I kind of figured we’d be in,” Haddix said. “I told them to call me and tell me if we made it and tell me where I was going.”

Western was one of four teams from the Gateway Conference to make the playoffs. The Gateway is the first conference to send four teams to the playoffs in one season.

While the Gateway sent four teams, Western and co-champion Northern Iowa are the only two to host games. Southern Illinois, also co-champion, must travel to No. 3 Delaware, and Western Illinois will play at No. 11 Montana.

JSU is making its first I-AA playoff appearance and first postseason trip since winning the Division II title in 1992.

The Gamecocks (8-3, 7-1 OVC) were the only OVC team to make the field, as Eastern Kentucky fell one win short.

JSU coach Jack Crowe is excited about playing the defending national champion even though his team has to travel on Thanksgiving weekend.

“It is certainly a benchmark-type football game for us,” Crowe said in a press release. “I’ve seen them on film and they have great linebackers. They are a football team that’s been developing because they are sound in every area.”

The Gamecocks opened their season with losses in three of their first five games. The OVC champs lost to Division II North Alabama and conference foe Murray State before winning six straight.

JSU clinched the conference title with a 22-17 win Saturday over Southeast Missouri State.

Similar to Western, JSU likes to run the ball with multiple running backs. Senior running back Kory Chapman leads the team with 1,299 rushing yards on 201 attempts for a 6.3 yards per carry average.

Three other Gamecock ball carriers have at least 300 rushing yards for the season.

Dorms will re-open at 2 p.m. Saturday for students wishing to attend the game.

Pepsi America and the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation bought 500 tickets. The first 500 students with identification will get in free. After that, tickets will cost $5.

Because of the men’s basketball game against Mississippi State at 7 p.m., parking in the Diddle lot will be reserved for HAF members with basketball parking passes.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]