FOOTBALL: Toppers Stunned in Gateway opener

Keith Farner

As he paced back and forth on the white paint of the Western sideline Saturday, head football coach Jack Harbaugh looked at the synthetic turf as if he were searching for answers.

Against a Western Illinois team that lost 13 starters from last season, Harbaugh’s team was down 14-0. With 6:19 left in the third quarter, his offense had just sputtered its way to another three-and-out. He called on sophomore punter Brian Claybourn for the sixth time.

After nearly 40 minutes of football, Western couldn’t find an answer to the Leathernecks on either side of the ball. And after 60 minutes, the answers were still elusive.

“We just got handled on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” Harbaugh said. “And that isn’t characteristic for us in this stadium.”

The last and only other time Western was shutout in Smith Stadium was when Morehead State won 3-0 in 1979. That team, led by legendary coach Jimmy Feix, finished 5-5 and 2-3 at home.

For this team to avoid a similar fate, it’ll have to prevent mental breakdowns, the key factor to Saturday’s inconsistent offense, missed tackles, and penalties on both sides of the ball. But the Toppers have been here before.

“We did the same thing last year,” senior quarterback Jason Michael said. “We lost the first conference game and we came back and were three minutes away from winning the conference championship. We know we can do it.”

This season could be harder to overcome, though. Their next three games are against No. 11 Youngstown State, at No. 2 McNeese State and at No. 6 Northern Iowa.

Michael finished the day with 171 yards through air and 71 on the ground. Sophomore running back Maurice Bradley had 16 rushes for 58 yards and junior wide receiver Casey Rooney had three catches for 59 yards.

No matter how many players contributed, Western could not capitalize on chances inside the 20-yard line. The Toppers had just three plays in the red zone, where they crumbled like a stale cookie.

Bradley fumbled at the 15 on one possession. Michael had a four-yard run and an incomplete pass on the other two. And with 3:02 left in the game on fourth down, Western took a delay of game penalty that pushed them outside the WIU 20.

“We were always playing from behind on offense because we never took control of the line of scrimmage, and you’ve got to do it,” Harbaugh said. “To be a winning football team, you’ve got to do it, and they did it.”

The shutout was just the 12th in the Gateway’s 18-year history.

The loss Saturday was somewhat startling because in Western’s first two games – Kansas State and Kentucky State – the outcome was all but a formality. Western (1-2, 0-1 Gateway) was undefeated at home in three previous contests against the Leathernecks (2-0, 1-0) and was coming off a 49-0 confidence-boosting win over the Kentucky State.

Saturday’s game was a chance for the Toppers to solidify themselves in the young Gateway season.

“We all talked a big game,” Harbaugh said, “but when it came to laying it on the line and playing, we just didn’t do it. And that was not a good performance.”

Sophomore linebacker Charles Thompson – who had six tackles – said his defensive mates were trying too hard to make a big play, giving opposing runners huge holes on the weak side.

“Our main adjustment (at halftime) was to stay at home on the back side,” he said. “Those are the long runs they broke. . They just cut it back on us and nobody stayed on the backside. Everybody was trying to do too much.”

Despite the adjustments, missed tackles were still present. And if it doesn’t improve, defensive coordinator David Elson could be reaching for the Tums.

“It’s the most frustrating thing you go through,” he said. “We talk about it, we practice it, and missed tackles was huge.”

So with a week to prepare for the Penguins, the coaches and captains are calling for other leaders to step up and make a play or two.

“Guys who want to play have got to come out,” Michael said. “If you want to play, this is the time to step forward and make it happen.”

Harbaugh and the Toppers will look for more answers at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against Youngstown State at Smith Stadium.

BEGINITAL Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]