FOOTBALL: Toppers tackled by McNeese St.

Keith Farner

LAKE CHARLES, La. – So much for tropical storm Isidore raining on Western’s upset hopes against McNeese State. The Cowboys handled the Hilltoppers on their own.

Starting with a 23-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver B.J. Sams and ending with a 59-yard punt return by Sams, the Cowboys scored almost at will in a convincing 38-13 win before 16,840 fans.

Missed tackles that have plagued Western much of the season stayed with the team this weekend.

“We just couldn’t compete,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “It was just one of those losses where I never felt we were in control. They were just a better team.”

Junior linebacker Erik Dandy said the missed tackles were minor mistakes, and that it boiled down to which team performed.

“They made some plays, and we didn’t,” Dandy said. “It just didn’t fall our way tonight.”

Harbaugh was impressed by the No. 2 I-AA team in the country. And he added the difference between this year and last is like night and day.

Last year, Western shut out McNeese 21-0 in Smith Stadium. That was the Cowboys’ last regular season loss.

“They wanted to demonstrate they weren’t going to be shut out again,” Harbaugh said.

And with that demonstration came emotion. Several personal foul penalties came when players didn’t stop at the blow of the whistle.

It all started just before kickoff.

As warm up drills were ending, the Toppers (2-3) gathered at midfield and almost completely covered the Cowboy logo while gathering steam for game time. The Cowboys (4-0) didn’t like it, and officials struggled to keep Western on its side of the field.

It didn’t stop when the clock started. At the final whistle, the teams had combined for 17 penalties.

But Dandy said he knew it was coming.

“We knew they were going to cheap-shot us because they did it last year,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game.”

Senior quarterback Jason Michael said it was the most hostile environment the Toppers had played in since Youngstown State last season, where the Toppers left a 24-14 win by stomping on the Penguin logo.

But Saturday, Sams was the real difference. While scoring his two touchdowns, he collected a school-record 316 all-purpose yards. It didn’t help that, on the other end, Western’s offense failed to display any consistency.

“Seems like the same old thing, not finishing drives,” Michael said. “We’ve just got to settle in and come together as an offense.”

The worst example came on the Toppers’ third possession of the second half.

After junior strong safety Brian Lowder returned his first career interception to the Cowboys’ 11-yard line, Western took over with 4:13 left in the third quarter.

A little more than two minutes and three offensive plays later, the Toppers were only one yard closer to the end zone. That meant another field goal and a moral victory for the McNeese defense.

But there were positives for Western.

Senior running back Jon Frazier had 68 yards rushing to lead a Western attack that combined for 170 yards on the ground against a team that allowed an average of 37 rushing yards through three games.

Instead of dwelling on the loss, which didn’t hurt Western’s conference standing, Harbaugh preferred to look ahead to next week.

“We’re going to Northern Iowa,” he said. “It’s a loss. You’ve got to play the next game.”

The Toppers resume Gateway Conference play when they take on UNI at 4:05 p.m. Saturday in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]