It was first-and-10 from the Western 43-yard line with just over 10 minutes left in the first half. Senior quarterback Jason Michael approached the line of scrimmage and scanned the defense before snapping the ball.
He optioned right toward the sideline and glanced at senior fullback Jeremi Johnson.
Michael pitched the ball but, it was behind Johnson and he had to reach back to grab it. Johnson snagged it and carried it eight yards before being pushed out of bounds.
It was a simple play. The Toppers didn’t get a first down on that drive. But the play symbolized the game and Western’s new optimism for the season. It wasn’t pretty. It took some adjustment. But the result was forward progress.
After kicking a field goal on its second drive of the game, Western (2-2, 1-1 Gateway Conference) held on for a 13-7 win over No. 11 Youngstown State (1-2, 0-1) in front of 10,100 fans at Smith Stadium.
The win has given the players and coaches hope after their season went on life support following a 14-0 conference-opening home loss to Western Illinois last week.
“We talked all week about we were actually dead, burned, buried in ashes,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “And even ourselves, we talked about what one more loss would do to us. If you don’t have character you don’t rise above that, and we’ve got guys who’ve got character.”
Despite his 92 yards and a touchdown, the Western defense held All-Gateway senior tailback P.J. Mays in check.
“In the second half, our linebackers were much more disciplined to stay on the back shoulder,” Harbaugh said. “And then when our line got up the field it forced him back. They were there to make the play.”
Junior linebacker Erik Dandy led the way with 14 tackles. And on the other side, senior running back Jon Frazier helped Western control the clock with 112 rushing yards on 18 carries.
The defense was much improved. Though not spectacular, the offense was at the very least solid.
And after the win, the mood in the locker room had shifted from a week prior – from grief to jubilation. Tears were replaced by smiles, hand shakes and hugs. And Harbaugh looked more like a politician priming for election than a head coach trying to get his team back to .500.
“Tonight was a good night because Harbaugh said we were flat last week and we didn’t play with emotion,” sophomore free safety Antonio Thomas said. “So tonight we came out and played with emotion and got us the victory, what we all needed to uplift our spirits.”
For a while, though, it looked eerily similar to the Northern Iowa game last season when Western also had a lead late in the fourth quarter but couldn’t run out the clock.
“I don’t know if they had flashbacks, but I had flashbacks of Northern Iowa with about five minutes left on the clock,” Harbaugh said. “We were leading by six and they had the ball and I said ‘Oh my Lord, here we go again.'”
But with two interceptions – one by Thomas and the clincher late in the fourth by junior cornerback Jeremy Chandler – the Hilltopper faithful soon breathed easier.
“On that last play, I actually heard the (Youngstown) coach from the sideline yelling out a play and I told my strong safety what I heard him yell out and to keep his eye on him,” Chandler said. “And he actually stayed where he was supposed to, and he ended up throwing it to me. So I broke on the ball.”
And that sealed it. A couple of kneel downs and the Western season suddenly had some oxygen.
Thomas was filling in for junior Antonio Veals who injured his right knee in the first quarter.
But the Toppers aren’t off the respirator yet. The schedule only gets harder from here. Starting this week Western plays at No. 2 McNeese State and then at No. 6 Northern Iowa.
Harbaugh said as big as Saturday’s win was, the offense still needs to improve. Michael had only seven completions for 70 yards, and the longest pass play was just 29 yards.
“Our offense is really not there yet,” he said. “I’m really nervous about it right now, the consistency of it. Now we’ll do some things well, but then we’ll have somebody jump offsides or a quarterback-center exchange . we just aren’t consistent on offense.”
The Toppers will try to get it fixed for Saturday’s showdown with the Cowboys at 7 p.m. in Lake Charles, La.
Toppers back in poll
After dropping out of the Sports Network Top 25 poll following the 14-0 loss to Western Illinois, Western is back at No. 25 this week. Youngstown State fell to No. 22.
Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]