LOOKING BACK: Dust has settled, and there’s plenty to smile about

Keith Farner

So they finally finished.

After winning six games in a row to earn an at-large bid into the I-AA playoff field of 16, Western made good on a season-long motto to “finish.” In 2001, the Hilltoppers let fourth quarter leads evaporate to Northern Iowa and Furman, and they didn’t want it to happen again.

For the first time in its 84-year history, Western continued the streak throughout the playoffs and captured the national championship by dispatching No. 1-seeded McNeese State. And before beating the Cowboys 34-14, the Toppers had knocked off No. 2 seed Georgia Southern and No. 3 seed Western Illinois.

This was a team with no real superstar at the beginning of the season. Its main goal in August was to replace the entire defensive secondary, two running backs and two quarterbacks.

Head coach Jack Harbaugh said one of the ingredients for success was how low-maintenance the group was to coach. He would tell how the seniors conveyed to the underclassmen the importance of each game and practice. Harbaugh hardly ever gave a motivational speech before a game because the team already knew what was at stake.

“This team has needed very little motivation the entire season. They’re highly motivated,” Harbaugh said before the Illinois State game. “We’re getting tremendous leadership from our seniors, so I’m very comfortable going into this ball game.”

It took more than a month for the team to gel. The Toppers started 2-3 and questions far outnumbered answers as each game was an extension of the roller coaster-like season. The defense was plagued with missed tackles. The offense lacked a personality and struggled to find rhythm in the new two-back, pass-friendly offense.

“Maybe the finest game the entire season was played tonight on this field,” Harbaugh said in Chattanooga.

“Can you believe we’re national champs? Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. — would you ever in your life (imagine)?” he asked.

Certainly not in August. It wasn’t until a week’s worth of two-a-days that Harbaugh settled on Jason Michael after weighing the more talented red-shirt freshman Antone Towns. He also had a backfield that was more crowded than the grocery store when snow is in the forecast.

It seemed the Toppers only improved after the loss to McNeese State. The offense relied on senior Jon Frazier in the running game to go with a sprinkle of a passing game. The defense returned to its suffocating ways, and junior defensive back Jeremy Chandler rose to the top of the league in interceptions.

“We talked all week about how we were actually dead, burned, buried in ashes,” Harbaugh said after the Youngstown State win. “And even ourselves, we talked about what one more loss would do to us. If you don’t have character, you don’t rise above that, and we’ve got guys who’ve got character.”

The difference for backup free safety Antonio Thomas was emotion.

“Tonight was a good night because Harbaugh said we were flat last week, and we didn’t play with emotion,” Thomas said. Thomas had a game-saving interception in the 13-7 win. “So tonight we came out and played with emotion and got us the victory — what we all needed to uplift our spirits.”

And ever since the home shutout loss to Western Illinois, Western claimed it was in the playoffs.

After all, a team with two conference losses had never won the Gateway title. So by the time the Toppers arrived in the field of 16, they were used to a win-or-go-home mentality.

“Our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said after the first-round win over Murray State. “We continued to fight, we had great senior leadership, 19 youngsters who refused to give in, and now to win the Gateway Conference championship … To win the first game of the playoffs was just tremendous.”

They went on in the playoffs to avenge two of the three regular season losses to Western Illinois and McNeese State. And sandwiched between those wins was a shocker over perennial I-AA power Georgia Southern.

By this point, Western was accustomed to playing with the house money. It was the underdog in the last two games and was much-improved since the first time it faced McNeese St. in September.

The Cowboys hadn’t gotten any better and had a couple of nagging injuries. Their No. 1 running back, Vick King, didn’t play in the game, and the Toppers had made it a point to kick away from return specialist B.J. Sams who amassed a school-record 316 all-purpose yards in the first game.

Other than that, it was the same old game plan for Western. Run, run, run, pass, run, defense gets a three-and-out, run, pass, run, run. Frazier finished second on the season record list with 1,537 yards.

“They don’t give these national championships away,” McNeese head coach Tommy Tate said. “You have to earn them. Western Kentucky did that.”