FOOTBALL: Macomb meltdown

Danny Schoenbaechler

MACOMB, Ill. – Western Illinois repeatedly gave Western Kentucky hand-dropped opportunities in the fourth quarter.

It still wasn’t enough, as the No. 2 Leathernecks beat Western Kentucky 33-28 in the Gateway Conference opener for both teams. Saturday’s loss meant the Hilltoppers have opened conference play 0-1 three years in a row.

The Hilltopper defense forced four fumbles in the game’s final 9:12, but the offense only converted those turnovers into seven points.

“It was an unbelievable effort by our defense,” Western Kentucky coach David Elson said. “Our defense can get off the field whenever they want.”

After trailing 21-7 early in the second quarter, Western Illinois scored 26 straight points to take control of the game.

Then came the fumbles, but the Topper offense turned the ball over on downs on three of the four possessions.

It took just nine plays for the Toppers to score when Justin Haddix hit Shannon Hayes for a 17-yard touchdown pass.

On the ensuing kickoff, Brian Claybourn pooched the ball to the 24-yard line and Western Kentucky recovered the ball. Haddix then capped that short drive with a 13-yard touchdown run.

Western Kentucky was up 14-0 and the Leatherneck offense had yet to touch the ball.

After the teams traded touchdowns, Erik Dandy intercepted Western Illinois quarterback Russ Michna’s pass at the Leatherneck’s 27-yard line.

Western Kentucky appeared ready to put the Leathernecks in an insurmountable hole, but the offense couldn’t move the ball.

After Matt Lange missed a 43-yard field goal, the offense’s early game dominance had ceased.

After the Leathernecks 26-point run, Western Kentucky trailed 33-21 when Western Illinois’ James Norris fumbled a Brian Claybourn punt and Brandon Smith pounced on the ball at the Leatherneck’s 31- yard line.

That started one of the strangest fourth quarters anyone on the field had ever been a part of.

“I know I don’t have a heart condition because if I did I’d be laying flat there in the fourth quarter,” Western Illinois coach Don Patterson said.

The game had two major turning points, with the same Leatherneck cornerback at the root of both plays.

Travis Washington tied the game at 21-21 with a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown late in the second quarter.

The fumble came on an option play when Haddix pitched the ball a little behind running back Lerron Moore. Moore was unable to corral the ball and Washington scooped it up and sprinted to the endzone.

“It was me having to adjust to the ball and I didn’t,” Moore said.

Moore said the team was frustrated with being tied at the half.

“We played a good ball game in the first half,” Moore said. “I felt like we were playing better than them.”

The second momentum-altering play came when Washington blocked a Claybourn punt out of the end zone for a safety. The play gave the Leathernecks (4-1, 1-0 Gateway) a 23-21 lead which they never lost.

“Without those two points it certainly could have been a different outcome,” Patterson said.

That’s because the Toppers – who dropped from No. 6 to No. 9 in The Sports Network/CSTV poll – would have only needed a field goal to tie the game, instead of needing a touchdown on their final possession.

The Toppers (3-2, 0-1 GFC) took a similar route to the national championship last year, and Elson said that will help throughout the rest of this year.

“Nobody knows better than us,” Elson said. “Been here, done it before.”

Western will have its first chance to get things back on track Saturday against Southwest Missouri State in Smith Stadium.

Claybourn takes weekly award

After averaging 49.3 yards per punt Saturday, junior Brian Claybourn was named the conference’s Special Teams player of the week Monday.

All three of his punts traveled at least 44 yards, and one landed inside the 20-yard line.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]