FOOTBALL: Tops take tie for Gateway title

Keith Farner

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Senior running back Jon Frazier couldn’t help but smile. He had just polished off one of the finest rushing performances in recent memory.

And offensive linemen Chris Price and Richard Gervais were thankful.

Just minutes after piling up a career-high 179 rushing yards at the hands of a swiss cheese-like Southern Illinois defense, Frazier was escorted around McAndrew Stadium on the shoulders of Price and Gervais.

“I felt like I was on ‘Rudy,’ the movie,” said the smiling Frazier, whose performance garnered Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.

The 48-16 win was Western’s sixth in a row and gave the Toppers a share of the Gateway title in their second season in the conference.

Because they lost to co-champion Western Illinois early in the season, though, the Leathernecks get the conference’s automatic bid in the I-AA playoffs. At noon next Sunday on ESPNews, the 16-team playoff field will be released and Western (8-3, 6-1 GFC) expects to be in the field.

With Saturday’s performance, Frazier finished the regular season with 1,070 rushing yards, good for seventh on Western’s single-season list.

“It may have been the greatest year in my coaching career,” said head coach Jack Harbaugh, who has coached for more than 40 years. “I never enjoyed a group of youngsters that’s been as low maintenance, very receptive to everything you tell them, and not only listen, but take to heart what you try to say.”

Frazier has been an integral part of the winning streak, solidifying himself as the No. 1 running back after the Western Illinois loss. But it has been a long time coming.

“Early in the season they were talking that there wasn’t a for-sure running back,” Price said. “This goes to show how much dedication and hard work he gave the program. We as players knew he was that caliber of running back. It just took a matter of time for the coaches to realize and give him the opportunity to show what he can do.”

True to the Gateway identity, the running game was alive and well for both teams this weekend. Just 13 passes were attempted, partially because a crippling 18 mph wind wreaked havoc on the passing game and special teams.

That wind forced Southern Illinois (4-8, 2-5) to rely solely on its rushing attack, ranked No. 3 nationally.

“This is fun football,” Harbaugh said. “That other stuff, it’s nice to let the young guys do that. But it’s just nice to get into a game where you win a game the way you’re supposed to win it, blocking and tackling.”

Frazier wasn’t alone. Saluki junior Brandon Robinson rang up 115 rushing yards and a touchdown. Western’s conference-leading defense surrendered 280 total yards, including several big plays.

It leaked but never flooded.

On the Salukis’ second drive, freshman quarterback Joel Sambursky scampered 47 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the Western 10-yard line. But the Topper defense stood tall enough the next three plays to force a field goal and keep the lead.

“That was all part of the scheme,” senior linebacker Sherrod Coates said. “We knew what we had to get accomplished to win the championship.”

With less than a minute left in the first half, junior free safety Antonio Veals picked off a Sambursky pass at the Western 41-yard line and returned it to the Saluki 23-yard line. The play snuffed out a Saluki drive and Western went on to score the next play to make it 20-3 instead of 13-10.

“I knew it was going to come my way,” said Veals, who was named Gateway Defensive Player of the Week. “(Sambursky) didn’t see me, the receiver didn’t see me, so I just took it.”

Junior strong safety Brian Lowder led the defense – which held the Salukis to 20 points below their season average – with a career-high 13 tackles.

After the interception, the Western offensive line took over. Three of the Toppers’ six rushing touchdowns were of 20 yards or more, including Frazier’s 23-yarder immediately after Veals’ interception.

And with two conference championships in three years, Western has solidified itself among the top teams in I-AA.

“When we came in in ’98, the program had never really won a championship, and we always talked about winning rings,” Price said. “Now we got that chance and we helped develop a legacy.”

And they can’t help but smile.