SEASON RECAP: Year of highs and lows for champs

Keith Farner

Aug. 12: Practice begins

First day of two a day practices begins on the old practice field across the rail road tracks.

The season motto becomes “FINISH” after the team let two fourth quarter leads fall by the wayside in 2001. There are plenty of questions surrounding head coach Jack Harbaugh and the team. Will he stay with senior Jason Michael at quarterback or go with red-shirt freshman Antone Towns?

Michael has more experience, but Towns — who’s also a right fielder on the baseball team — has a stronger arm and more athletic ability.

Harbaugh settles on Michael after he displays a better understanding of the offense in practices and intra-squad scrimmages. Harbaugh is still uncertain about who will run the ball in the new two-back, pass-friendly offense. The team also lacked a go-to receiver in the passing game after Harbaugh said they’ll throw it at least 20 times a game.

“We need to find a go-to guy in the passing game,” Harbaugh said. “Someone who can reduce the risk of an interception because he is willing and able to go up and get the ball. I think Jerome can develop into that kind of guy.”

The defense also had its own questions. How will the secondary respond after losing all four defensive backs, including Joseph Jefferson and Mel Mitchell, both drafted in the National Football League?

Aug. 26: Western cutting a new rug

In what what was a certain commitment to football, administrators arranged for a $900,000 improvement to the turf of Jimmy Feix field. Craig Biggs, assistant athletics director for facilities, lead an 18-month search for a synthetic turf that was cost effective. He settled on AstroPlay, a rubber based material after looking at five different brands at high schools and colleges across the country.

The cost of the turf was included in the $32 million Diddle Arena renovation project. The turf needs to be replaced every 15 years, but the lack of mowing and painting yard lines will save the university the most money. Harbaugh said turf has come a long way since he first started coaching.

Aug. 31: Kansas State 48, Western 3

A trip to No. 26 Kansas State brings a blowout loss, a six-figure check and a key injury.

The play of the game came with just over nine minutes left in the first half. Senior kicker Peter Martinez was lining up a field goal to cut into the 10-0 Wildcat lead, but a botched hold by sophomore Brian Claybourn led to a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Western also lost senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves who tore his left medial collateral ligament. Reaves, who missed three games, was expected to be a down-the-field threat for Michael.

“One of the first times in four or five years we just didn’t tackle,” Harbaugh said. “I know these guys are quick … but when you’ve got quick guys on defense they should be able to tackle. Of all the things on the defensive side, the tackling is something we need to address very quickly, or we’re in trouble.”

Sept. 6: Towns quits team

Harbaugh announced to the team following its final walk through before the Kentucky State game that red shirt freshman Antone Towns had quit the team to focus on baseball. After splitting practice time between the two sports in the spring, Towns was listed as Michael’s backup on the preseason depth chart.

Harbaugh said during two-a-days that if Towns had spent more time with football, he could be farther ahead than junior transfer Perez Smith. As recently as the last preseason scrimmage, Harbaugh said Towns and Smith were tied on the chart. What perhaps made the decision easier on Towns was that, while the Western baseball team was making a run towards the conference championship, he became one of the Toppers’ best hitters.

Sept. 14: Western Illinois 14, Western 0

With a chance to avenge a 2001 loss in Macomb, Ill., the Hilltoppers lay an egg offensively while losing three fumbles. The Leathernecks won both sides of the line of scrimmage battle, and Travis Glasford ate up 126 rushing yards.

The shutout was the first in nearly six years and only the second at Smith Stadium since its opened in 1968. It was as if a trusted friend had stolen their girlfriend. They were shocked and frustrated.

“We did the same thing last year,” senior quarterback Jason Michael said. “We lost the first conference game, and we came back and were three minutes away from winning the conference championship. We know we can do it.”

Oct. 5: Halftime, Western at Northern Iowa

The Hilltoppers are on top of the No. 6 team in the land 7-3 at the intermission. So far they had done little to quiet the raucous UNI-Dome crowd of 14,684.

But during the conversations and speeches inside the visiting locker room, Western came together. Michael called it a defining moment in the season, and as they came out in the second half, there was suddenly a swagger of confidence in their steps. Western scored a touchdown midway through the third but lost the lead after the Panthers answered with 10 points.

Many players thought back to the previous season where Northern Iowa won the Gateway Championship after Western gave up a fourth quarter lead. With about nine minutes left, Western started the drive that would start an eventual 10-game winning streak. Johnson scampered 46 yards on first down to take the air of the crowd.

Harbaugh said the win silenced the naysayers who had given up on his team.

“We’re back,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of people in Bowling Green, a lot of people at Western Kentucky University, a lot of people that were Western Kentucky fans, had written us off. And now we’re back.”

Oct. 15: Leading tackler Erik Dandy tears ACL

While the team was preparing for Southwest Missouri, it lost leading junior linebacker Erik Dandy to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Dandy led the team with 90 tackles in seven games, 21 more than the next defender. Dandy was engaged with a blocker on a running play when he was moving left down the line of scrimmage. Then a player was blocked into his leg, tearing the ligament.

Dandy was replaced by Karl Maslowski, who had 15 tackles (mostly on special teams) before being called into a starting role.

In his first game, Maslowski contributed seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He finished third on the team with 95 tackles and had a key interception in the national championship game that set up Western’s first score.

Nov. 16: Western 48, Southern Illinois 16; Toppers claim share of conference championship

With a chance to claim a share of the Gateway Conference, the Toppers traveled to Carbondale, Ill. The Salukis weren’t your average 4-7 team. Their rushing attack ranked third nationally, and by game time, the wind was howling at 18 m.p.h. Both rushing attacks were used more than an infant uses a pacifier, and Frazier eclipsed the 1,000 mark. The teams combined for 627 rushing yards and only passed the ball 13 times.

Nov. 30: Western 59, Murray State 20

A first round playoff match up brought a battle of former Ohio Valley Conference rivals. But all the score indicated was how far apart the Gateway and OVC Conferences are today. There was a 25 m.p.h. wind howling all game, which gave whoever won the coin toss a significant advantage. Western won the flip.

The game went on to be one of the best offensive showcases in program history. Rolling up 429 yards, the Toppers sprinted out to a 24-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and never looked back.

Dec. 7: Western 31, Western Illinois 28

A much anticipated rematch between the fierce Gateway rivals brought one of the most memorable games Harbaugh could remember. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns gave Peter Martinez a chance at redemption after missing two field goals earlier in the game. He connected on a 25-yarder with 40 seconds left to seal the win. The game had four ties and two lead changes, and the win was Western’s first over the Leathernecks in three tries after joining the conference last season.

The one blemish to the battle was a post-game brawl involving players from both teams and fans storming the field. Five players were suspended, and junior Cris Riviere was dismissed from the team after being seen swinging a sledgehammer on the field.

Dec. 14: Western 31, Georgia Southern 28

In the first game with a cloud of suspensions hanging over their collective heads, Western took on the daunting task of battling perennial I-AA football power Georgia Southern.

After storming out to a 17-7 lead at halftime, the Toppers had to hold off a strong comeback from the Eagles. Georgia Southern scored 21 straight fourth quarter points but fell short when Michael scored a two-yard touchdown with 46 seconds left to ice the win.

“Talk about deja vu…” Harbaugh said. “This was the same situation we faced in Macomb last week, with the same score and almost the same distance on the field-goal attempt at the end. I’m tremendously proud of our football team.”

Dec. 20: Western 34, McNeese 14

The first appearance in a national championship has the Toppers hoping to avenge a 38-13 loss to the Cowboys from Sept. 28.

In the days leading up to the game, the coaching staff and players seem very loose. Harbaugh sings fight songs and tells jokes at press conferences while players just smile and shake their heads at the old coach. Tommy Tate and McNeese State, conversely, seem stiff and elect not to practice the day before the game. Those formulas turn out to largely affect the outcome of the game.

Western stays with the same game plan it had subscribed to all season. Frazier scores two touchdowns while running through Hum-Vee sized holes opened by his mammoth offensive line. The defense yields more than 400 yards but only allows one touchdown. After the game, Harbaugh thanks the dozens of family, friends and former players who joined him in jubilation.

“This group of guys, we’re all teammates, we’re all friends,” quarterback Jason Michael said.

“We all care about each other, not to say that the teams in the past haven’t. But this team truly cares about the guy next to him and is willing to die for him, and I think we showed that this season … It’s hard to explain, but these guys are my best friends and always will be. It’s a special group.”