FOOTBALL: Top’s playoff hopes still alive

Michael Casagrande

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The playoff hopes Western has clung to the past few weeks are still alive. The Toppers did all they could do Saturday, defeating a dangerous Youngstown State 37-13 to wrap up their regular season.

Now, they must wait.

The 16-team field for the Division I-AA playoffs will not be announced until Nov. 23, leaving the team waiting on edge. Western is competing for one of eight at-large bids. The other eight are reserved for conference champions.

Western started fast Saturday after senior cornerback Jeremy Chandler returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.

The quick strike had the Western sideline in a frenzy, but the Toppers struggled for most of the first half.

The Penguin defense didn’t allow Western to establish a rushing offense, allowing only 14 yards in the first quarter. The offensive struggles frustrated coach David Elson.

“A lot of frustration,” Elson said. “I told them at halftime I was frustrated. I was yelling at the offensive coaches because I was frustrated. The main thing was, we stepped up as frustrated as we were.”

Elson’s frustration reached a climax with the score tied at 10 and YSU (5-7, 2-5 Gateway Conference) driving deep in Western territory. The Topper defense was having trouble with the Penguins and needed a stop to regain some momentum.

Then sophomore cornerback Dennis Mitchell intercepted an

Aaron Marshall pass and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown, giving Western a lead it would not surrender.

“I thought, ‘This was my chance’,” Mitchell said. “We were frustrated, I made a play and got it going … that changed the whole game.”

A Penguin fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half set up the Topper offense that had trouble in the first half.

Sophomore running back Lerron Moore gained 83 of his 134 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns in the second half.

“We came out a little flat,” Moore said. “We knew how Youngstown was. We knew we were a better team coming in.”

While Western (8-3, 5-2) did everything it could, it didn’t get any help from other Gateway teams.

Northern Iowa rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Southern Illinois 43-40 and gain a share of the conference championship with the Salukis. Both will make the playoffs.

Western Illinois defeated Southwest Missouri 63-42, leaving the Toppers and Leathernecks with two conference losses apiece. And Western Illinois beat the Toppers 33-28 on Oct. 4.

No conference has ever sent four teams to the playoffs in the history of the I-AA playoffs, but Chandler said this year, the Gateway should.

“We wanted to finish this season with a win,” Chandler said. “Hopefully when the chips fall, we will get a trip to the playoffs. It feels like we should be there.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]