FOOTBALL: Tops calm before McNeese St. storm

Keith Farner

Facing the No. 2 team in the nation on the road is already a tall order. Having to do that in the middle of a tropical storm – possibly even a hurricane – could make it nearly impossible.

That’s what Western football faces this weekend when it travels to Lake Charles, La. to square off against No. 2 McNeese State (3-0).

Tropical Storm Isidore is lurking near the Gulf Coast and could pound the McNeese State campus – which is less than 100 miles from the coast – by game time Saturday night.

“You’re certainly aware of those things and you think about them, but it’s not really going to change our game plan much,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “They throw the ball more than we do, so it’s probably something they worry about more than we do.”

The Cowboys pass an average of 19 times a game and score nearly 35 points, so saying the Western defense will be tested is like saying a tropical storm will produce rain.

In the middle of that high-octane offense is senior wide receiver Jermaine Martin.

Martin holds program records in passes caught (127) and receiving yards (2,058). He isn’t alone, though. Tight end Jeff Hamilton has caught 29 passes and scored seven touchdowns in his career.

A week after building its confidence with two second-half interceptions in a win over No. 11 Youngstown State, the Topper secondary isn’t worried.

“First of all, we go into the game knowing that we have equal opportunity against any wide receiver we’re going against to play a good game,” said senior cornerback Carl Birts. “We’re just going to play our coverage.”

This group is trying to make a name for itself. Even before the preseason started, they were faced with the daunting task of replacing arguably the best secondary Harbaugh has coached in his 41 years on the sidelines.

But they’ve come through the first four games, led by defensive coordinator David Elson’s urging to “make a play.”

Cornerback Jeremy Chandler and free safety Antonio Thomas saved the day last week when they melted two Penguin drives with key picks.

Thomas showed the group has depth to go along with talent and heart, filling in for injured free safety Antonio Veals, who is expected to miss two to three weeks after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the first quarter against Youngstown.

All four players are either juniors or seniors, but bad timing tagged them when they arrived on the Hill.

“We’ve got some excellent people back there,” Harbaugh said. “Their problem was they happened to play behind some very excellent people as well.”

NFL draft picks Joseph Jefferson and Mel Mitchell, along with All-American Bobby Sippio and the unsung two-year starter Kyle Moffatt, were those excellent people.

Chandler, though, said he isn’t trying to be like his former teammates.

“I’m not near as athletic as Bobby Sippio or Joseph Jefferson or even Mel Mitchell, but I think I bring a different game to the field,” Chandler said. “I’m not real big, I just play my responsibilities and try to be in the best position I can be in.”

While the defense is making a name for itself, the offense is trying to get some consistency while transitioning to a more liberal passing attack.

“The few times where we actually got in the red zone, we didn’t put the ball in the end zone. That’s what we need to work on this week,” senior running back Jon Frazier said.

Harbaugh has shuffled his running backs more often than a Las Vegas dealer shuffles cards, but he said Frazier and senior fullback Jeremi Johnson will get the call this week.

Frazier is second on the team with 243 rushing yards, behind senior quarterback Jason Michael with 258.

“When competition is keen, and competition is even, it’s going to be that way,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s healthy. You’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game and you can’t have a bad game. You can’t have a bad practice. You’ve got to be sharp, and I think it’s brought out the best.”

Western will have to be sharp against a Cowboy defense that allows a microscopic 38 rushing yards per game – tops in Division I-AA.

McNeese State was picked No. 1 in the Southland Conference preseason poll and haven’t disappointed. On its way to a 3-0 start, the Cowboys have beaten Grambling, Division I Louisiana-Monroe and Youngstown State.

Although going outside the conference to play a top team usually isn’t desirable, Harbaugh said it will help make up ground lost in the defeat to Western Illinois.

“And we’d like to think of ourselves as one of the premier teams in I-AA football,” he said. “To be regarded as that at the end of the season, I think you have to test yourself.”

Western will sharpen its pencils today and Friday, and the test will be handed out promptly at 7 p.m. Saturday in Louisiana – weather permitting.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]