OUT OF BOUNDS: Finished before they’ve started?

Kyle Hightower

FINISH or finished?

Everyone thought they would remember.

They had to remember. They just had to.?

The unforgettable in this case is in reference to the 17-13 season-opening loss Western suffered at the hands of Western Illinois and nearly severed any hopes the Hilltoppers had for success during the 2001 football season.

It was the first of the Hilltoppers’ three I-AA losses that coach Jack Harbaugh and his staff felt came as a direct result of their team not finishing the game.

Accordingly, “FINISH” was adopted by the team as the motto for the 2002 season and plastered on the front of red T-shirts in big white letters.

Aside from making a fashion statement and giving the players something to wear after practice, it was supposed to be the psychological reminder that danced in the Toppers’ minds when they took the field Saturday for their I-AA and Gateway Conference opener.

But after swimming upstream for 60 minutes Saturday, Jason Michael sounded more like raspy Western hoops coach Dennis Felton than the Toppers’ starting quarterback. He fished for words that could explain why his team put up a goose egg for only the second time ever in Smith Stadium.

All Michael caught, however, was a hook full of clich?s.

“We took a step back, and we didn’t come ready to play today,” Michael said. “We weren’t consistent offensively. and we didn’t finish drives – you’ve got to finish drives.”

Staring off into the Bowling Green horizon, Michael looked as if he were watching a replay of the Toppers’ misfortunes in the cloudy sky above Smith Stadium.

“We couldn’t take care of the ball today especially, and I take a lot of the responsibility for that with two fumbles,” he said.

But it wasn’t the two-touchdown loss that sticks out. Losing by 14 points in football isn’t really all that bad.?It was the manner in which the Leathernecks stole the Toppers’ joy every time the meager crowd of just over 6,000 had the slightest thing to cheer about.

But since Michael and the offense didn’t FINISH in lieu of a decent game on paper (Michael was 15 of 23 for 171 yards passing), are they now finished for the year?

Coach Jack Harbaugh wasn’t as clich?d as his quarterback. And he wasn’t as tight-tongued in searching for the words to describe his team’s lackluster performance.

“We got handled,” Harbaugh said. “That is not characteristic for us in this stadium.?We were just not very emotional or mentally prepared, and that is my responsibility.

“I thought our team would remember. We all talk a big game, myself included, but none of us backed it up today. The mettle of this team will be tested now, and it will be interesting to see what leaders will emerge. We are in deep trouble.”

Harbaugh knows his team didn’t FINISH. So are they finished?

An optimist when it comes to Western football, I will say that I don’t think they’re quite finished.? Not just yet.

I say this because of the way their upcoming schedule is composed. Every year, the schedule is seemingly always on their side.?

Last year, the Western Illinois game was their season opener. The psyche of the Toppers was such that a Week Two beat down of Kentucky State was enough to prepare them for a second wind in the Gateway.?

This season they don’t have the luxury of playing a second-tier team that will guarantee them a win next week.?They will instead jump right back into conference play against Youngstown State, which the Toppers stole a win from on the road last season.

Though Youngstown will have revenge in mind this week, the mental stunner that Western Illinois offered will rest heavy with Western this week during practice.

And having observed the team up close this season, I think the psyche of this year’s team is such that it needs to jump right back on the bike, with no training wheels, if it wants to salvage this season like they did last.

Kyle Hightower’s column appears on Tuesday and occasionally on Thursday. You can reach him at 745-6291 or by e-mail at [email protected]