Both teams were forced to adapt to their environment. The environment at Saturday’s game was one where running the ball didn’t work.
So, like a pair of baby birds, Western and Southern Illinois leaped from their comfort nests and took it to the air.
The Salukis turned out to be the stronger fliers, which resulted in a 28-24 come-from-behind victory.
The loss means Western (6-3, 3-2 Gateway Conference) is eliminated from conference title contention.
Now, the Hilltoppers must adapt to playing two must-win football games to close out the season. If they can manage to win out, a trip to the division I-AA playoffs is still possible.
“I think if we win out and go 8-3, we should be in the field of 16,” Western coach David Elson said.
The Toppers are in the predicament because they lost an 11-point fourth quarter lead to the undefeated Salukis.
Southern Illinois (9-0, 5-0) arrived in Bowling Green with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 4 running game.
The Salukis’ three heralded running backs couldn’t break through the Topper defense, so quarterback Joel Sambursky was allowed to show off his under-worked right arm.
More than one-third of Sambursky’s 228 passing yards were the reason the Western defense couldn’t stop Southern Illinois from scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes to win the game.
A 28-yard pass to Brent Little gave Southern Illinois its first lead of the game with just 55 seconds remaining.
Western senior free safety Antonio Veals fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Salukis recovered, which all but sealed the win.
“We just didn’t ever get control of it,” Elson said.
Sambursky won the game with his arm, but it was Western freshman quarterback Justin Haddix who almost threw his team to victory.
Haddix completed 13 of 23 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown.
His 10-yard strike to senior tight end Matt Rogers with 8:42 left seemed be in the clear, but the Topper offense never moved the ball again, and the Salukis kept moving it.
Western’s running game had problems of its own besides one long run.
Sophomore Lerron Moore eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark with a 92-yard first quarter touchdown. Other than that run, he gained only 52 yards on 23 carries – good enough for a lackluster 2.26 yards per carry.
“It feels good,” Moore said. “But the main thing is that I want to win. Knowing the character of this team, I know we’ll bounce back.”
Western’s defense gave up only 13 points through three quarters against the high powered Saluki attack.
Senior linebacker Erik Dandy played well enough to be named Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Week, as he managed 15 tackles.
He had four tackles for a loss including a sack, and he forced a fumble.
“All we can do is win out and not think about the selection committee,” Dandy said. “You can’t get frustrated because that’s when you lose a team.”
The final two games will be Northern Iowa at home Saturday and at Youngstown State on Nov. 15.
Last year’s team managed to play much better with the season on the line. That will have to happen again if the Toppers have any hope of defending their national title.
Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]