FOOTBALL: Justin Time

Michael Casagrande

NORMAL, Ill. – For the second time in three weeks, Western had a date with a Gateway Conference foe on Homecoming weekend.

Unlike the Toppers’ 33-28 loss at Western Illinois Oct. 4, Western rained on Illinois State’s celebration with a come-from-behind 27-24 victory Saturday.

After the game, coach David Elson said winning on the road in the Gateway Conference is an accomplishment no matter what team you play.

“This is the best football conference in America,” Elson said. “To go on the road (and win) in this conference is hard to do. Hats off to Illinois State – those guys came out and had a plan.”

A one-yard Lerron Moore touchdown run with 1:59 remaining capped a 10-play drive to seal the win for Western (5-2, 2-1 Gateway Conference).

Freshman quarterback Justin Haddix said the team was not about to panic when it was faced with a fourth down deep in Redbird territory.

“We really didn’t think of it as that much pressure,” Haddix said. “We were just gonna go out there and play, and just step up and make plays.”

The Haddix-to-Casey Rooney connection was key in the Toppers’ final, game-winning drive. The pair connected on a third-and-seven and fourth-and-six for long gains. Rooney’s second reception of the drive gave Western a first-and-goal from the six-yard line.

At the opening of the second half, the Toppers looked to have the game in hand. After free safety Antonio Veals returned the opening kickoff 61 yards to the Redbird 39-yard line, the offense struck quick.

Haddix found Rooney for a 36-yard touchdown that gave Western a 20-7 advantage.

But ISU (3-4, 0-3 GFC) left the Topper sideline stunned after scoring a pair of touchdowns in a 36-second span to take a 21-20 lead with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter.

In Western’s three Gateway games, each game has been decided by less than a touchdown.

“I feel very good about our ability to win games in the fourth quarter,” Elson said. “It was just a great effort by everybody.”

The Western defense entered Saturday’s game allowing 104.7 rushing yards per game, but Redbird running back Sha-Ron Edwards had a career day. Edwards had the sixth highest single-game rushing performance in Redbird history as he racked up 233 yards on 36 carries.

“It was very frustrating at times, when they converted a lot on third down,” sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith said. “We focused a lot on getting off the field on third downs, and they had a lot of third and shorts they converted.”

The win keeps Western in the running for the Gateway title after Western Illinois fell to Southern Illinois Saturday. The Saluki win sets up a homecoming Nov. 1 at Smith Stadium that could result in a three-way tie at the top of the conference standings.

And the win not only keeps the Toppers’ conference title hopes alive, but it keeps them alive for the 1-AA playoffs, Rooney said.

“We get a loss right there, and we might not make the playoffs,” Rooney said. “We are just looking at every game, from here on out, and we need to win each game.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]