FOOTBALL: Tops drop Murray State, get rematch

Keith Farner

Sept. 14 was a nice, early autumn day in Bowling Green. Eighty-seven degrees, partly sunny skies and a 16 mph breeze out of the south.

It seemed the view from every direction was picturesque — everywhere but the Western sideline of Jimmy Feix field. Or in the Hilltopper locker room. Or in the offensive huddle.

That’s because on that day, the Western offense was as cold as the temperature is today in a 14-0 loss to Western Illinois (11-1).

There were seven punts and just 154 rushing yards for a unit that has been in the nation’s top 10 rushing offenses for 10 straight years.

“We just got handled on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” Coach Jack Harbaugh said then. “And that isn’t characteristic for us in this stadium.”

It was Western’s first home shutout in 23 years and left players and coaches wondering if they’d have a shot at the Gateway Conference championship.

They were hit harder than a Monday morning.

No team has ever won the Gateway with two losses, and the Toppers (9-3) still had six conference games left.

“Our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said. “We continued to fight and had great senior leadership, 19 youngsters that refused to give in.”

Since that day, they’ve only lost once and are riding a seven-game winning streak.

With the championship on the line two-and-a-half weeks ago at Southern Illinois, Western took care of business and claimed a share of the conference crown with Western Illinois.

Then the Toppers beat rival Murray State 59-20 last Saturday at home to setup a long-awaited rematch with Western Illinois on the road this Saturday.

It gives Western a chance to redeem itself after fumbling and sputtering its way through the first meeting. Western Illinois advanced by beating Eastern Illinois 48-9 last week.

“I hope that the way we’ve been playing will keep up,” junior linebacker Karl Maslowski said. “And keep playing strong, and I think if we do that … we’ll be able to beat this team if we play as a team.”

In the first meeting, Western’s mammoth offensive line — which averages 301 pounds and normally pancakes defensive lines — was manhandled. A rushing unit that averages 258 yards a game was held to 154. The Toppers’ No. 1 running back now, senior Jon Frazier, managed just four yards on three carries. And Western fumbled six times, losing three.

“It’s another playoff game,” senior quarterback Jason Michael said. “But we have a chance to prove what we didn’t do in the first game. We didn’t play like we’re playing now. We didn’t play as a whole team and we didn’t play as an offense.”

Even the swarming defense, which yields 113 rushing yards a game, gave up 169, including 126 to freshman running back Travis Glasford. Since that game, the defense has allowed one 100-yard rusher, and three Western players have been named Gateway Defensive Player of the Week.

So the work is cut out for Western. Nearly every day since August, the team has been preaching it will finish this time.

Now is their chance to take another step.

Western 59, Murray State 20

In the first round of the I-AA playoffs last week, the coin toss proved to be the biggest play of the game. With the wind howling at 25 miles per hour, whichever team won the toss would hold the advantage.

Western did and went on to 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.

“The wind was a little bit of a factor,” Racer Coach Joe Pannunzio said. “But still, when you get beat like we got beat today, you can’t blame it on the wind. They took it to us, got us by the throat and didn’t let us breathe.”

The 59 points set conference and school playoff records as the wind and a swarming defense slowed the Racers.

The pivotal play came with just under eight minutes left in the first half. Racer senior punter Brian Bivens finally got off a good kick for 55 yards, but junior free safety Antonio Veals collected it at his own 14-yard line and took it 86 yards for a touchdown and the longest return in league playoff history.

“It was very frustrating,” Bivens said. “A stiff breeze, no matter how hard you kick it or how much technique you try to use, the wind’s going to take over.”

And Veals’ return deflated any comeback hopes for Murray State.

“It helped our momentum,” Veals said. “I just play our punt return the way coach coaches it. Hit the hole hard, straight up the field, no dancing.”

Senior fullback Jeremi Johnson had a career-high 160 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. And sophomore running back Maurice Bradley carried the scoring load with three 1-yard touchdowns.

The Western defense also had a big day, holding Murray State to 161 yards below its season average. Sophomore linebacker Charles Thompson led with 10 tackles.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]