Western began the season with 11 opponents.
With 10 games in their past, Saturday’s regular season finale at Youngstown State will define the season either a success or a disappointment.
The Toppers (7-3, 4-2 Gateway Conference) need to beat YSU to stay alive for an at-large bid into the Division I-AA playoffs. A Northern Iowa loss to visiting league champion Southern Illinois would boost Western’s chances of defending its first national title.
Western hasn’t been left out from the 16-team playoff field since Jack Harbaugh’s 1999 team finished 6-5.
“The playoffs start now,” coach David Elson said. “If we win, we think we will play on. If we don’t, we know we’re not going to play on. It’s kind of the same old ‘must win, backs against the wall.’ You can use all of that terminology, but these guys know they have to come out and perform.”
The Penguins (5-6, 2-4 GFC) limp into their final game after falling 24-17 to Southern Illinois last Saturday. YSU has dropped three games in a row; the last two were on the road at top-10 opponents.
The Toppers have won two straight against YSU, including a 13-7 victory last Sept. 21.
It has been a rebuilding season for coach Jon Heacock’s team. The Penguins lost seven offensive starters from last season’s 7-4 squad, including their top rusher and top three receivers.
“It is a matter of being prepared,” senior linebacker Karl Maslowski said. “It is going to be their senior night. We had a big game on our senior night, so hopefully they don’t come out with the same kind of enthusiasm we did.”
The Toppers will hope to deflate the YSU seniors with a ball-controlling rushing attack.
Sophomore running back Lerron Moore had his streak of 100-yard rushing games end at five against Northern Iowa.
YSU ranks No. 110 in I-AA in rushing defense, allowing 219.5 yards per game. Moore and company are No. 10 nationally in total rushing offense, gaining 239.2 yards per contest.
“We just plan on coming out and playing our game,” Moore said. “We can’t focus on what they are doing. Right now, they are the only ones standing in our way.”
With Moore behind him, freshman quarterback Justin Haddix will hope to keep the momentum he had in the UNI win.
Haddix turned in his best performance yet last week while throwing for a career-high 226 yards and a touchdown on an efficient 10-for-15 passing.
“We’ve got to win this game before we can even consider the playoffs,” Haddix said. “We aren’t looking forward to anything, we’re just looking straight at the playoffs.”
The game can be seen on WNKY-40 (Insight cable channel 7). Kickoff is scheduled for noon.
Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]