FOOTBALL: A season saved

Keith Farner

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Junior strong safety Brian Lowder was busy Saturday. Sure, he had a road game at No. 6 Northern Iowa to play, but that was just half of his activities.

Lowder – who carries a 4.0 grade-point average with just over one semester left for a degree in government and sociology – took the law school entrance exam at the UNI campus Saturday morning.


The Western football team, like Lowder, was facing the biggest test of its season.

After losing its Gateway Football Conference opener to Western Illinois three weeks ago, the Hilltoppers couldn’t afford another conference loss if they hoped to contend for the championship.

No team has ever won the Gateway with two losses.

“It was a must-win situation. We knew it all week,” Lowder said. “No matter who we were playing, it was a conference game. And to put ourselves where we want to be at the end of the season, we had to win.”

So with their backs against the wall, the Toppers came out with emotion and intensity they had lacked in three losses this season.

Before 14,684 noisy fans in the UNI-Dome, Western shocked Northern Iowa 31-12 to get back in the race for a title.

“We’re beginning to develop a little bit of a personality with our offense, and that is we’re not the typical option team we have been in the past,” coach Jack Harbaugh said. “Our offensive line is beginning to feel they can move some people off the line.”

It didn’t start easy, though. Western (3-3, 2-1 Gateway) led only 7-3 at halftime after fumbling twice inside the UNI 35-yard line. It looked like the same offense that had averaged under eight points a game against four Division I and I-AA opponents coming in.

Then at halftime, the team suddenly found confidence, and realized that was all going to change.

“It was the most confident and most together we looked at halftime,” said senior quarterback Jason Michael, who went 10 of 15 for 150 yards passing. “That probably was one of the most defining moments. You know Coach Harbaugh talks about defining moments in a season, and that was when we really, truly came together as a team.”

But trying to go for it all with 14:54 left in the game, Michael threw a pass intended for senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves. It went into double coverage and emerged in the arms of Northern Iowa junior cornerback Benny Sapp at the 20-yard line.

From there, Northern Iowa (3-2, 0-1) took the ball to the 4-yard line where, on fourth down, Panthers’ senior tailback Adam Benge reached across the goal line for the score. The two-point conversion was stuffed, but the scoreboard showed Western with a narrow 17-12 lead and 9:15 to play.

Many on the Toppers’ sideline flashed back to last season, when the Panthers stole the Gateway Championship at Smith Stadium. With the ball, a two-point lead and under six minutes left to play, the Toppers couldn’t run out the clock. UNI used a field goal to strip the title from Western.

“We sat down over there, and I know Chris Price and myself ?talked and said, ‘Look, this isn’t going to be another last year. We’re not going to be up and then them come back,'” Michael said. “‘We’ve got to get something going, establish a drive. We just got to put some points on the board.'”

And with 9:00 left in the game, Western started the drive.

The dome was the loudest it had been all game and nearly everybody was on their feet. But like a sharp pin popping a balloon, senior fullback Jeremi Johnson ran 46 yards on first down. The noise level went from that of an airplane engine to a church sanctuary.

“That’s the best feeling,” Johnson said. “When you’re playing at somebody’s home and they’re loud where you can’t even hear your quarterback, then you make a play and they just shut up to where you can hear a penny drop. That’s the best feeling. That’s what this game is about.”

Before Johnson got his opportunity, it was the defense that overcame the missed tackle bug it has been battling all season. Leading the group was senior linebacker Jon Drummond who picked up five tackles, a pass deflection, and his sixth sack in six games.

Drummond said the win was aided by the schedule Western played coming into the game. Of the five teams the Toppers faced coming in, four are currently ranked in either the Division I or Division I-AA Top 25.

“It was the season. It was our whole season. We weren’t going to get down. We weren’t going to lay down,” Drummond said. “I guess Northern Iowa didn’t understand we were battle-tested. Yeah, we’re 2-3, but every opponent we played we didn’t lay down. Our record doesn’t show how much time and how much effort we put into all those games.”

After Western Illinois lost earlier in the day, there are four teams with one loss, creating a crowd atop the conference standings. The Toppers joined the party Saturday.

“We’re back,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of people in Bowling Green, a lot of people at Western Kentucky University, a lot of people that were Western Kentucky fans, had written us off. And now we’re back.”

In three weeks, Lowder will find out which law schools he has been accepted into, so he can plan his future. And with two more conference games between now and then, Western will also have a better idea what its postseason future may hold.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]