FOOTBALL: Scoring soaring behind solid D

Keith Farner

It has taken nearly seven months, but it seems Western’s new-and-improved liberalized offense is paying dividends.

Following Western’s fourth win in row, players and coaches were disappointed in the lackadaisical offense. But disappointment in a 17-point win shows just how far this unit has come.

“I think that says a lot about the team,” senior quarterback Jason Michael said. “We were able to pull together in times when we needed to, and that explains a lot about a team and their character. Even though things weren’t going real good for us, we were able to pull through enough to get a win.”

That production has enabled the already-stellar defense to have more confidence, and more importantly, rest.

“It’s great,” senior linebacker Sherrod Coates said. “Now we know that if we mess up, the offense has got our backs and they can get us out of ruts.”

Although a fullback leads the team in catches, the two-back, pass-oriented offense is helping the Toppers pull games out, something they couldn’t do last season.

With two games left, Western has three times the passing yardage it had after 12 games last season. But it hasn’t abandoned the bread-and-butter rushing attack that seems to be firmly embedded in the playbook.

That balance has helped Western hang on to wins when it got leads late in games against Youngstown State, Northern Iowa and last Saturday against Indiana State.

Two 11-play drives in the second half drained the clock and left Indiana State comeback hopes unplugged.

“I think our inside game is good,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “Our option we need to develop more. I think our passing has been very efficient, we just aren’t doing enough of it. We just need to throw the ball a little bit more and utilize that part of it.”

Before the season, Harbaugh said Western would try to throw the ball between 20 and 24 times a game. Through nine games, it is averaging 12.1 attempts.

It wasn’t always a well-oiled machine.

Early in the season, the defense held Western Illinois to 14 points, but the Toppers were shut out thanks to an unproductive offensive line.

So No. 22 Western (6-3, 4-1 Gateway Conference) can’t afford another sub-par performance with No. 25 Illinois State (5-3, 3-1) on tap Saturday.

The Redbirds come to town having won three of their last four games. Junior quarterback Michael Souza leads an offense that averages 409.5 yards per game. Souza was listed fourth on the preseason depth chart but has been named Player of the Week in the conference the past two weeks.

“Their offense right now is just beginning to gel,” said Harbaugh, who called Souza the real deal. “So this is a quality team. This is the 10th game of the season, and we need it desperately to stay in the hunt.”

A week after his first fumble of the season, senior running back Jon Frazier is looking forward to bouncing back.

“They have a pretty decent squad defensively,” said Frazier, who leads Western with 772 rushing yards. “But I think we’ve got the advantage up front because they’re not as big as teams we’ve played.”

To stay in the Gateway championship picture, Western will more than likely have to win a close game, something they haven’t been accustomed to much this season. In all but two games, the outcome has been at least a 17-point differential.

The Toppers and Illinois State are quite similar in everything from statistics to schedule strength. Both have lost to a I-A team and to a top 15 I-AA team. In conference play, both were tripped up by Western Illinois, who shares a three-way tie with them for first place.

But with conference championship hopes on the line, and the most evenly matched game of the season, motivation isn’t scarce on the Hill.

“This team has needed very little motivation the entire season. They’re highly motivated,” Harbaugh said. “We’re getting tremendous leadership from our seniors, so I’m very comfortable going into this ballgame.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Smith Stadium.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]