OUT OF BOUNDS: Football team puts the pieces together

Kyle Hightower

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Do me this one favor.

Close your eyes and think of the most perfect snapshot you can depicting the most faultless scene you can.

Now imagine that image broken into a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.?

Take it one step further, and see yourself undertaking the meticulous and painstaking task of piecing that picture back together – with one slight hiccup.

Just as you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty and are ready to complete the masterpiece that you’ve invested your time and energy into, you discover you can’t finish it because there is a piece missing.

Ain’t that a . Well, you get the idea.

Through its first five football games, Western was that incomplete puzzle.?

A team with mashed potatoes, but no gravy.

That is to say it was a team lacking one or two pieces on the offensive side of the football which was keeping it from perpetuating the two-dimensional attack it employed during the 2000 season when it captured the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

Maybe it was the eight-hour bus ride.?

Or it could’ve been the pristine Missouri autumn air.?

Or it might have even been the fact that Jason Michael knew Western football enthusiasts seemed more concerned with linebacker Erik Dandy’s season-ending injury this week than the Hilltopper offense’s ongoing battle to establish itself on a consistent basis.

Lord knows, for a quarterback, that has to be the worst.

But whatever it was, something got a hold on Michael Saturday.? And it couldn’t have decided to visit the senior at more perfect time.

After the Toppers showed flashes of ability to run an efficient offense first against Northern Iowa and expectantly the next week against fledgling Florida International, Michael and the Toppers brought a hammer to the Bears.

And not just on defense, as it had over the first half of the year.?

They were the hot butter with the toast.? And it made for a breakfast feast, featuring the Bears.

With the Toppers trailing 7-0 following a Michael interception, the gritty senior took it upon himself to almost single-handedly put Western back into the game.

On almost identical plays, Michael ended back-to-back Western drives with 14-yard touchdown runs that were accentuated with Michael running headfirst over Southwest Missouri defenders.

“The Northern Iowa game was a big moment for this offense,” Michael said.? “Our defense plays so much better when we can keep them off the field and they can play with a lead.

“On that first touchdown run, I actually had flashes of Northern Iowa when I fumbled the ball into the endzone trying to score.? It wasn’t happening (Saturday).”

And as far as that cavalier attitude of their starting quarterback, the Western coaches seem to be all for it.

“One thing I told him is that he is not like me, Donte (Pimpleton) or Jason (Johnson) and that he has to be his own kind of player,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Willie Taggart said.? “That is, being a quarterback that is not going to run out of bounds on a play at the goaline, like today.?

“He sets the tone for us on offense. And when our wide receivers or running backs see him making plays like that as a quarterback, it gets them going.”

Need proof?? Okay.

How about Jerome Reaves becoming the first Hilltopper to record a touchdown catch in back-to-back games since the last two contests of 1999, catching a 40-yard bomb from his able QB.? Reaves led Western with two receptions for 51 yards.

Or linebacker Karl Maslowski with seven tackles in his first collegiate start, playing in place of the injured Dandy.

With just three games left to play, Western’s Gateway and playoff destiny are right where the Toppers want it to be, in their own pocket.?

The puzzle isn’t nearly complete.

But more importantly now for the Toppers is that they appear to have finally realized they possess the pieces it takes to compete.? The pieces were never lost. Western had just misplaced a few along the way.

Kyle Hightower’s column appears on Tuesday and occasionally on Thursday.? You can reach him at 745-6291 or by email at [email protected]