Near the end of Thursday’s practice, senior linebacker Jon Drummond was pulled off the field after missing a coverage assignment.
Visibly surprised, Drummond asked defensive coordinator David Elson why he was yanked.
“You looked tired,” Elson said, causing Drummond to shrug.
But Saturday, Western’s defense looked anything but tired as it allowed just 107 yards, none rushing, and five first downs to Kentucky State in a 49-0 drubbing.
“Right now, defensively, we’re really good,” junior linebacker Erik Dandy said. “We’re just clicking right now. We just need to take it into the Gateway Conference and just play.”
With revenge in mind, Western will open conference play this Saturday against Western Illinois. The Leathernecks spoiled the Toppers’ Gateway and season opener last year, beating them 17-13 in Macomb, Ill.
After two weeks of polar opposites in Kansas State and Kentucky State, Western will host back-to-back conference foes in WIU and Youngstown State.
Head coach Jack Harbaugh is banking on his team being as good as it can be at this stage of the season.
“Hopefully we’ve learned enough in the I-A and the Division II experience, but now we’re laying it on the line,” he said.
Since the preseason, senior quarterback Jason Michael has said he has to put the ball in the hands of whoever is going to make a play.
In Saturday’s blowout, Michael proved that keeping the ball in his own hands – while running over several Thorobred defenders – was often in the Toppers’ best interest. He finished the day with a touchdown and 259 all-purpose yards – 91 on the ground and 168 through the air, on 8 of 10 passing.
But Harbaugh said having former Indiana assistant T.J. Weist to help with the passing game has been the difference.
“That was the thing we worked on in the spring, and it didn’t really look good in the spring,” he said. “In the fall, I think T.J. Weist being here has really helped us with our passing game, . and the work he has done with our passing game is becoming very evident.”
Case in point: Michael looked smooth in completing the first seven passes he threw Saturday. Then he let the legs, his own and his teammates, do the rest.
Western also ran for an impressive 371 yards in the win. Sophomore Maurice Bradley led the way in the first half with 80 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Jon Frazier cleaned up behind him with 102 yards on the ground.
But after all the positives, there was a fly in the victory soup – penalties. The Toppers drew 11 yellow flags for 100 yards. They got away with it Saturday, but can’t afford to do the same this weekend with the conference schedule getting underway.
“That’ll kill us when we’re playing a big school,” Dandy said. “But those are aggressive mistakes, so we can cut those out.”
Besides that, though, the team feels confident all the other pieces are in place for a championship run.
“I think we’re about as ready as we can be,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’ve developed a little bit of a personality, and I think we understand our team a little better.”
Kickoff for the Western Illinois game is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Smith Stadium. It will be televised on Fox Sports Net.
Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]