FOOTBALL: Offense lacks, defense leads, Tops win

Keith Farner

The sky was clear, the air crisp – a picturesque fall night. The 11,200 fans in Smith Stadium marked the largest crowd of the season. Twenty-one Homecoming Queen candidates strode through the band in what could have been a moment for a postcard or recruiting brochure.

Then there was Western’s offense, a polar opposite. It couldn’t have looked uglier.

But the Hilltoppers (6-3, 4-1 Gateway Conference) won 24-7 over Indiana State (3-6, 1-3) and remain tied for first in the ever-changing Gateway climate. If Western wins its last two games, it is guaranteed at least a share of the title in its second year in the conference.

And for that, the Toppers were thankful.

“It’s not something we’re going to box up and put in a time capsule and drop it for Homecoming 2002, but it was a victory,” coach Jack Harbaugh said.

And that could sum up this team. It stubbed its toe 14 times – 11 penalties and three turnovers – but still managed a 17-point win over one of the conference’s bottom feeders.

Such a win could solidify a championship contender or be the first sign of a team not finishing, much like Western crumbled last year.

Six second-half drives resulted in zero points, three fumbles and two punts. And only half of those drives traveled inside Sycamore territory.

“They handled us inside,” said Michael, who totaled 111 yards. “We couldn’t get our inside running game going, and we had trouble doing other things we like to do. But the biggest thing is we got a win tonight.”

After finding a groove three weeks ago at Northern Iowa, the Toppers’ offense lost the personality it had developed on the way to three wins in a row. False starts, illegal blocks, and those three fumbles led to a disappointed Harbaugh.

“We did everything a team does that’s in a state of malaise,” said Harbaugh, whose offense still managed 310 yards. “(The offense) was out of the groove today. Something happened, they got knocked off the railroad track. Now we’ve got to get back on it.”

On the bright side, senior linebacker Sherrod Coates and junior free safety Antonio Veals led a suffocating defense that held the Sycamores to 198 yards.

“I thought our defense was just outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a defensive performance better than today. It was just beautiful.”

Those defenders bottled up all-conference senior quarterback Julian Reese for only 54 yards passing and 18 yards rushing.

Coates’ effort was good enough to earn him Gateway Defensive Player of the Week honors. And the defense continues to lead the conference in scoring defense (15.6) and rushing yards per game (106).

“(Reese) was the best quarterback I’ve played against in my whole football career in college,” said Coates, who led the defense with 14 tackles, seven for a loss, and two sacks. “He’s a big, strong guy with good leg power and a good arm.”

Coates said the ISU blocking scheme put running backs on him, which proved ineffective. Reese was pulled in the second half despite not looking injured.

“I think he just had enough,” Coates said.

Veals returned for the second straight game after injuring his knee five weeks ago against Youngstown State. He was electric on both kickoff and punt returns, combining for 105 yards on five returns. And he returned two interceptions 40 yards.

“I’m amazed at how he can spin around there and not lose your direction and go the other way,” Harbaugh said. “It’s amazing that you can spin this way, and then spin that way, and then keep knowing you are going this way and not get screwed up and go back that way.”

Western opened the scoring with a 42-yard field goal but fell behind just over a minute later. Sophomore running back Sidney Monfort scampered 28 yards to finish a five-play drive that gave Indiana State the lead at 7-3 .

It was a similar situation last week at Southwest Missouri State, as the Western defense surrendered an early score.

“That’s an amazing thing about our defense, I wish I could figure that out,” Harbaugh said. “It’s almost as if our guys need to see the speed of the game before they’re able to rise up and make the plays they made.”

After that, the defense responded. But it took nearly eight minutes for the Toppers to take the lead for good.

Michael threw two touchdown passes, and sophomore running back Maurice Bradley scored from two yards out. On the final score of the game, senior fullback Jeremi Johnson took a swing pass 36 yards to paydirt – thanks to an eye-popping block by freshman wide receiver Casey Rooney. Rooney leveled junior strong safety Max Mathews near the line of scrimmage to spring Johnson.

“When Casey hit him I was like, ‘Goodness,'” Michael said. “He got one of those old-time hits.”

It was one highlight for the offense in game that saw the defense save the day. And, as the Toppers will note, they extended their winning streak to four games.

“We would not have won this ball game if our defense didn’t come up big,” Harbaugh said.