FOOTBALL: Tops tackle Southwest Missouri State

Keith Farner

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – After junior linebacker Karl Maslowski picked up his first sack of the season in the second quarter of Saturday’s 31-7 win over Southwest Missouri State, the first person to celebrate was injured junior linebacker Erik Dandy.

Immediately after Maslowski got up off the turf, Dandy started clapping, and when Maslowski hit the sideline, Dandy met him with a smile and a pat on the back.

Maslowski was filling in for Dandy, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last Tuesday in practice. The injury will sideline him indefinitely. In the meantime, it’s Maslowski’s time to show what he can do.

“When we first got to the locker room I was a little jittery,” Maslowski said. “But by the time everything started, I was fine.”

On its way to a third straight win, Western (5-3, 3-1 Gateway) used a dominating defense – anchored by the capable fill-in – and consistent offense to hand SMS (3-5, 0-4) its fourth conference loss in a row.

“To come on the road and have to travel eight, nine hours and get off the bus and play against a talented team like this, and then win, is rewarding,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said.

The Topper defense had Bear junior quarterback Michael White scrambling for room all day. And it led to five sacks and an interception. Western held the Bears to 225 total yards, with just 34 on the ground. Maslowski contributed seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

“There wasn’t any question Karl Maslowski was going to play well,” Harbaugh said. “Karl Maslowski is one of our most solid players. . On most Gateway Conference teams, Karl Maslowski would play and play a lot of excellent, excellent football.”

Junior cornerback Jeremy Chandler said the entire team knew what to expect from Maslowski and didn’t worry about Dandy – who leads the team with 90 tackles – being gone.

“We all know that Maslowski can play the position,” said Chandler, who picked off his team-leading fifth interception in the second quarter. “It wasn’t like it was a big adjustment for us.”

But after an interception by senior quarterback Jason Michael set up a one-yard scoring run by SMS senior tailback Eddie Linscomb, the winning streak looked fragile.

Then on the next SMS offensive series, sophomore linebacker Charles Thompson came through with a sack on second-and-eight from the 17-yard line, forcing the Bears to punt two plays later.

“I knew I had to step up and be the leader of this team,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t going to let nothing keep me down.”

That play turned the game’s momentum. Seven plays and 50 yards later, the offense tied the game at 7. Michael banged his way in from 14 yards out by steamrolling junior safety Daryl Warren like a bowling pin. The quarterback filled the stat sheet with 184 yards of total offense.

From that point, Western rolled.

Michael scored again on the ground and threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves. With that, the rout was on. The strike to Reaves was the first time a Western receiver scored a touchdown in consecutive games since Alan Ogletree in November of 1999.

Senior running back Jon Frazier continued to pile on rushing yards with his fourth game of 100 yards or more. He finished with 146 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.

“The offensive line has been doing a great job all year,” Frazier said. “But I’ve got more confidence in myself as far as running the ball, and I think that’s helped out a lot.”

With three games left, it seems the offense is jelling at the right time. In their five wins, the Toppers are averaging 35 points, while in the three losses they scored a total of 16 points.

“We’ve remedied some of the problems we had earlier,” Harbaugh said. “And we’re beginning to establish who we are as an offensive football team.”

And after losing their first conference game at home, the Toppers appear to be in line for the Gateway Championship if they can win their last three games.

“Our heads have never fallen down,” Chandler said. “We always kept our chins up from day one. Even after the loss to Western Illinois, we’re still going to win the Gateway Championship.”