FOOTBALL: Tops run through, over, around FIU

Keith Farner

After last Tuesday’s practice, head football coach Jack Harbaugh was disappointed. He had given his players two days off for the first time all season and they had a terrible practice.

But Harbaugh saw a sign on Wednesday that could bode well for Western’s postseason hopes.

The team bounced back.

“They’re listening, and that’s the most rewarding thing as a coaching staff,” Harbaugh said.

For the first time this year, Western has won back-to-back games. And the Toppers took their latest win in runaway fashion. Against an overmatched first-year Florida International team Saturday, Western used its strength and size to hold the Panthers to 67 yards in a 56-7 drubbing.

“It was one of those games that could have been tight,” Harbaugh said. “But because of our field position, I don’t think the score is indicative of how hard they played and how competitive they were.”

Six Toppers scored, including senior quarterback Jason Michael, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for one to senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves.

It was Michael’s first multiple-touchdown game of the year and his first passing touchdown since the regular season finale in 1999.

“I do think we’re beginning to develop a personality offensively,” Harbaugh said. “The first three, four, five weeks of the season I didn’t see that. We were struggling to find out what our identity was . and (finding it) is rewarding at this stage in the season.”

The defense was equally impressive, working the zone blitz to near perfection. On its way to allowing the fewest yards all season, Western intercepted four passes and had seven sacks.

“I think we did some things with our zone blitzing that (FIU freshman quarterback Jamie Burke) hadn’t seen previously, and it confused him,” Harbaugh said.

Senior linebacker Sherrod Coates – who picked up four tackles and two sacks – said he and his defensive mates looked forward to the inexperienced FIU offensive line.

“They got a freshman line and they didn’t know where the blitz was coming from,” Coates said. “When we saw this was an all-freshman line, we knew it was going to be a stat game.”

Junior linebacker Erik Dandy’s effort was good enough for Gateway Defensive Player of the Week. He had eight tackles – three behind the line of scrimmage – and two sacks.

The stingy defense made for smooth sailing on offense.

“We just had just excellent field position the entire first half,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think we ever got the ball not on our 50-yard line. We were able to score, score, score, and then once it gets out of hand it’s a different ballgame.”

In nearly every statistical category, the Toppers overwhelmed the Panthers, like a sledgehammer does a butterfly.

From rushing (400 yards for Western, -7 for FIU) to first downs (28-7, in favor of the Toppers), the game was all Western after the first 7:40. At that point, senior running back Jon Frazier scored to make it 14-0.

“I felt good. I felt like I had fresh legs,” said Frazier, who finished with 126 rushing yards and a touchdown. “Coach Harbaugh gave us two days off last week, which is rare when you get that, but I think that gave us a chance to get our legs back.”

Coming into the game, all the coaching staff wanted was continuity after an emotional 31-12 win over defending Gateway Conference champion Northern Iowa.

They got it.

“When they do heed you, you know they’re listening and they’re very focused and goal-oriented,” Harbaugh said. “That’s maybe the most positive thing in what happened (Saturday night) was that they did heed and they did play that kind of game.”

So with four conference games remaining, and Western playing its best football of the season, the Toppers appear ready to make a run at their first Gateway title.

“The table is set,” Harbaugh said. “We’re in the position we want to be in. We can be conference champions. All we have to do is run the table.”

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]