FOOTBALL: W. Illinois invites Toppers home

Michael Casagrande

College football tradition says you schedule a weak opponent for homecoming.

Western Illinois bucked that tradition when it scheduled Western for homecoming at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday. The two Westerns were co-conference champions last season in the Gateway Conference.

“Western Illinois has started off where it left off last year,” coach David Elson said. “They are an experienced team on both sides of the ball.”

The Toppers enter Saturday’s showdown after being drilled 48-3 at Auburn.

Western dropped three positions in The Sports Network poll to No. 3. Western Illinois remained at No. 2.

The Leathernecks (3-1) are coming off of bye week. Western Illinois beat Tennessee-Martin 56-0 Sept. 20 when quarterback Russ Michna broke a school record with five touchdown passes.

Western Illinois’ only loss this season also came at the hands of a I-A opponent. Louisiana State defeated the Leathernecks 35-7 on Sept. 13.

The Toppers (3-1) and Leathernecks met twice last season. Western Illinois took the first game, 14-0 on a soggy Sept. 14 afternoon in Smith Stadium. The loss dropped Western’s record to 1-2. The second meeting was a little more memorable for Western.

The Toppers made the trip to Macomb, Ill., for an NCAA quarterfinal playoff match-up with the heavily favored Leathernecks.

After a back-and-forth battle, senior kicker Peter Martinez connected on a 25-yard field goal attempt with 40 seconds remaining to give the Toppers a 31-28 lead.

Western had to sweat out one final surge from the Leathernecks that ended when Mike Scifres’ last second 61-yard field goal attempt fell short.

That’s when the Macomb mayhem began.

A brawl between Western players and Western Illinois players and fans led to multiple suspensions for the Toppers’ semifinal game with Georgia Southern the next week.

“Two teams, a lot of emotion and it just boiled over after the game,” senior linebacker Erik Dandy said. “It was an unfortunate incident because it was a hard fought game, and for that being the only thing people want to remember from the game, it’s unfortunate.”

Leatherneck coach Don Patterson is not concerned with last season’s loss and said his team has moved on.

“Last year was last year and this year is this year,” Patterson said.

Senior wide receiver Shannon Hayes remembers making the walk from the locker room to the field at Western Illinois. At Hansen Field, fans line the walk, taunting opposing players as they come by.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Hayes said. “I think they remember last year … I definitely know they are going to be jacked up.”

The game will be broadcast on the College Sports Television Network in selected areas.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]