FOOTBALL: Western must win to keep playoff hopes alive

Michael Casagrande

The paint has begun to fade on the national championship logo at midfield on the turf of Feix Field at Smith Stadium.

With three losses – two in the Gateway Conference – Western’s playoff hopes are fading faster than the paint on their home turf.

A second straight conference title is no longer a possibility after last Saturday’s 28-24 Homecoming loss to Southern Illinois.

No. 12 Western (6-3, 3-2 Gateway Conference) must now shift its attention away from conference supremacy and toward playoff survival. The Toppers will have little time to regroup as No. 6

Northern Iowa (8-1, 5-0 GFC) visits Smith Stadium Saturday.

“Their defense is very much improved from last year,” coach David Elson said. “They’re more athletic and faster overall, so we’ve got to be able to put some points on the board.”

Last season, Western limped into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a 2-3 record following a loss to top-ranked McNeese State. A 31-12 come-from-behind victory in front of 14,684 fans in the UNI-Dome began Western’s 13-game win streak and its national title march.

“Last year, we had our backs against the wall,” Elson said. “We’ve been there and done it. Northern Iowa has their backs against the wall because they have to win to go into the final game undefeated.”

Panther running back Terrance Freeney is the top rusher in the conference with 1,054 yards this season.

The Topper rush defense has turned in impressive performances against Indiana State and SIU after Illinois State dismantled Western’s defensive line. Illinois State piled up 287 rushing yards Oct. 18, but Toppers limited Indiana State to 101 yards and Southern Illinois to 95 yards on the ground in the past two games.

Western has not lost back-to-back games in Smith Stadium since 1994 when the Toppers lost four straight en route to a 5-6 record.

“That’s one of our goals this year is to dominate Feix Field,” said linebacker Erik Dandy, one of 25 seniors who will play their last game Saturday. “We lost one game, and we haven’t lost two games in a while, so that is what our focus is.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].