CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – At the end of the third quarter, six letters were draped behind the Western bench. They were held against the brick wall of W. Max Finley stadium below red and white clad Hilltopper fans.
Western was up 24-14 and the Topper sideline and fans were more excited than they had been all game.
That word has become the battle cry of the 2002 Toppers after they let two wins slip from their grasp last season.
Putting an exclamation point on a Cinderella season, Western did finish
Saturday night. Before 12,360 fans and a national television audience, this version of Western football delivered the first National Championship in 84 years of football on the Hill. Western won 34-14.
“To be in the locker room with these guys, they’re warriors,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “These guys are really warriors. They looked this challenge straight in the eye and never blinked.”
The challenge was to overcome a McNeese St. team that manhandled Western Sept. 28 en route to a 38-13 win. The No. 1 seeded Cowboys entered the championship with only a loss to I-A Nebraska and were riding the momentum of two straight come-from-behind playoff wins.
“I’ve said it before but there’s something special about this group,” senior quarterback Jason Michael said. “It’s tough to explain. This team truly cares about each other … and is willing to die for the guy next to them.”
After sitting the bench for two years, Michael became the glue that held
Western together after it started the season 2-3. He was 6 of 10 passing?for a career-high 185 yards and a touchdown.
With the clock winding down on the win, Harbaugh knew it was coming but couldn’t describe the feeling after coaching 41 years.
“There would be no possible way to explain the emotion,” he said.
Soon after the clock read zero, fans emptied on the field and tore down one of the goal posts before parading it around the field. Defensive coordinator David Elson was soaked after being doused with a cooler. And the players dashed toward the hill in front of the scoreboard jumping on the championship logo.
The first McNeese St. offensive possession swung the momentum like a sumo wrestler jumping on a see-saw. Sophomore quarterback Scott Pendarvis threw an interception to junior linebacker Karl Maslowsi at the Cowboy 38-yard line. That set up a 16-yard touchdown from senior fullback Jeremi Johnson to open the scoring.
Johnson played after missing pre-game warm-ups to take an IV because of flu-like symptoms. He finished with three catches for 90 yards
including a 45-yarder.
“He made a big impact,” said Cowboy junior linebacker Roderick Royal who shadowed Johnson all night. “They took advantage of me being too aggressive. It wasn’t my ‘A’ game at all.”
Fellow backfield senior Jon Frazier also had a big day. Ten weeks after being handed the starting job, Frazier proved why the ground-oriented Western offense has revolved around him. He scored two touchdowns and scampered for 159 rushing yards.
“We noticed how their defense was flowing hard all game and I just tried to hit the hole hard,” Frazier said of his 14-yard third quarter touchdown.
And after the first meeting was started with the Cowboys scoring early and often, Western knew it had to grab the momentum quickly.
“It was real important,” junior Karl Maslowski said. “They brought a lot of
people so we knew we had to start out fast so their crowd wouldn’t get in it.”
They did and at halftime the score read 17-6. Once again, Western had another second half lead to hold on to.
But McNeese St. had plenty of confidence after scoring on its third drive. With 3:49 left in the third quarter, Cowboy cheers enveloped the stadium and the flicker of hope was quickly building into a fire.
Ten plays later, a two-yard Michael touchdown silenced those fans and
popped the cork off the Topper championship celebration.
Nearly 11 years after the program was almost cut, Western has reached the top of the I-AA football mountain.
“In 50 years, they’ll look back to 2002 and Western Kentucky University is the national champion,” Hartbaugh said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”