FOOTBALL: Western to host Murray St. in I-AA playoffs

Keith Farner

For the first time in two years, the Red Belt will be on the line Saturday.

Western (8-3, 6-1 Gateway Conference) will host Murray State (7-4, 5-1 Ohio Valley Conference) in the first round of the I-AA playoffs at 1 p.m. Saturday in Smith Stadium.

The 16-team field was released Sunday.

This will be the sixth playoff appearance in school history, the fourth during Coach Jack Harbaugh’s tenure. And it’s the first time in Western’s 84-year history that it has made the playoffs three years in a row.

The old OVC rivals haven’t met since a 48-38 Hilltopper win in 2000. After that season, Western moved to the Gateway, which has caused scheduling conflicts.

“You don’t have to be here long to realize there’s something special about this ball game,” Harbaugh said.

The team gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings Sunday to watch the release of the pairings. Once the Toppers knew they were in, they exhaled and started celebrating.

“It was complete rejoice,” senior offensive lineman Chris Price said of the at-large bid.

The Racers earned their first trip to the playoffs since 1996 by upsetting defending conference champion Eastern Illinois 37-35 Saturday. Senior placekicker Shane Andrus booted a 52-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Racers to the championship.

The teams are similar in many ways.

Murray and Western started the season with losing records before finishing with five- and six-game winning streaks, respectively. And both like to sprinkle in a little passing with heavy doses of running.

“(Western is) physical and they run very well,” Racer Coach Joe Pannunzio said in his weekly press conference.”They do everything that’s going to cause me to not sleep very well this week. We’re certainly going to have to play better than we did last week for us to win in Bowling Green, Ky.”

Senior running back Billy Blanchard has racked up 1,067 yards and leads Murray with 15 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Stewart Childress, one of many players recruited by both schools, has thrown 12 touchdown passes.

If Western wins Saturday, it would play the winner of Western Illinois-Eastern Illinois in round two. The Leathernecks handed Western its only conference loss Sept. 14. It was a game where the Toppers lost three fumbles and couldn’t capitalize on opportunities in the red zone.

“That’s what we’d love to have,” junior strong safety Brian Lowder said. “But our team this year, that’s more of an advantage. We’ve got the experience this year of people who’ve been through it. We’ve got to beat Murray State first.”

Dorms will open at noon Saturday for students who want to come back for the game. The first 300 students to enter Smith Stadium will get in free with a student ID. Other students will have to pay $5 admission.

Other ticket prices are $17 each for VIP chair seats and Red Towel bench seats, $13 for reserve bench seating, $9 for adult general admission and $5 for youth general admission.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]