FOOTBALL: No fireworks: Tops win ugly

Keith Farner

It was a game that had the potential to be as exciting as any all season. Illinois State and Western entered last Saturday scoring 26 and 24 points a game, respectively. The teams were ranked third and fourth in total offensive yards per game.

It seemed only a matter of time before the fireworks exploded.

But those offensive fuses were never lit, and the game turned out to be as exciting as a chess match.

Fueled by senior place-kicker Peter Martinez’s three field goals, the Hilltoppers (7-3, 5-1 Gateway Conference) won their fifth game in a row, 9-0 over the Redbirds (5-4, 3-2) in front of 5,600 fans at Smith Stadium.

“The offense is beautiful,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “We grind it out there at the end to suck the air out of that clock. We’re not in a malaise at all. It’s the most beautiful offense I’ve ever seen in my entire career.”

Eighteen seniors played their last regular season game on the Hill and Western finished the home schedule 5-1. And after Western Illinois won earlier in the day, the Toppers stayed in a virtual tie for first in the Gateway Championship race with one conference game left.

It was another statement game for Western’s conference-leading defense, which held Illinois State, the third-ranked Gateway offense, to 120 yards – 169 below its average.

Sophomore linebacker Charles Thompson paced Western with six tackles but dropped two second-half interceptions that could have put the game away even earlier.

Since leading tackler Erik Dandy went down three games ago, the defense has allowed an average of 181 yards a game and just two touchdowns.

“The people that really respect and enjoy the game of football has to see the energy that our players exert on a given night,” Harbaugh said. “There’s nothing left. Their buckets are empty.”

And it seemed fitting that on the final home game a senior would make one of the biggest plays.

With the Redbirds driving near midfield and less than two minutes left in the first half, senior Jon Drummond intercepted junior quarterback Michael Souza at the Western 43-yard line.

“In games like this, big-time players make big-time plays,” Drummond said. “I had to make a play. I left my boy Sherrod (Coates) hanging last week, so I had to come in and had to make a play for us to win and be successful. I’m the key to this defense.”

Souza was the reigning conference Player of the Week but will likely give up his crown after producing just 40 total yards. He directed an offense that was 1-for-13 on third down conversions.

Illinois State wouldn’t get any closer after Drummond’s pick and only reached midfield once, as the Western defense was aided by sophomore punter Brian Claybourn’s 45-yard average.

On the ensuing Western drive, senior quarterback Jason Michael found senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves wide open at the 10-yard line, but the pass was overthrown and fell incomplete.

An earlier play in the first quarter also had Reaves open in the end zone. Michael lofted a fade pass to the right corner, but officials ruled Reaves was still juggling the ball when he landed.

“We were fortunate tonight that we made enough plays to get a win,” said Michael, who went two of seven passing for 52 yards. “It’s by no means a pretty win. It was ugly.”

Thanks to a dominating defense and clock-draining running game, Western didn’t need those points. Senior Jon Frazier made good on his prediction that Western’s offensive line would open up Humvee-sized holes for him.

Frazier’s offensive line outweighed Illinois State’s defensive line by 65 pounds and allowed him to run for 119 yards on 30 carries. With one game left, Frazier needs 109 yards for a 1,000-yard season.

Since wins don’t come with style points, the Western players and coaches weren’t as disappointed as they could have been with a nine-point output.

“Not at all,” Harbaugh said. “Not one iota when you get the win.”

Harbaugh was more disappointed with having to say goodbye to the seniors, especially the five-year guys. They have been with him during one of the most successful runs in program history. If the Toppers make the playoffs this year, it’ll be the third straight year they have done so. And their five-year record stands at 39-18.

“If you look at what these guys have done for this program,” Harbaugh said, “we were a program moving along, moving along and then . those five-year guys literally lifted us up. These guys chose to stay with us, and hopefully now they’re feeling the excitement of what we’ve been able to accomplish this season.”

After 10 straight weeks of games, the Toppers will have a week off Saturday. Their next game is Nov. 16 at Southern Illinois.