FOOTBALL: Schedule gets tougher, starting with Youngstown

Keith Farner

Standing under the scoreboard in the shadow of Feix Field is a display of the accomplishments of past Western football teams.

Nine conference championships.

Fourteen top-25 final rankings.

Nine postseason appearances.

But for the 2002 version of Western football to continue that legacy of greatness, it will have to bounce back from losing its Gateway Conference opener to Western Illinois.

That campaign starts Saturday against Youngstown State.

“I’m disappointed,” Coach Jack Harbaugh said of the loss to Western Illinois. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been as disappointed, but it’s behind us now.”

After losing to the Leathernecks last week, another loss in the Gateway would be like hitting the glacier that sunk the Titanic. It would all but end the Toppers'(1-2, 0-1 Gateway Conference) hopes of postseason play and a conference championship.

“We don’t have any choice but to come out with more emotion with what we’ve got to get done,” said junior strong safety Brian Lowder.

No. 11 Youngstown State (1-1) is coming off a 28-13 home loss to No. 2 McNeese State. In its first two weeks, Youngstown State has used three quarterbacks, and Coach Jon Heacock has yet to find one he likes.

“The thing about these guys is the quarterback is just a player on their team,” Harbaugh said. “They’re going to run the same plays they’ve run for the last 20 years. They just plug in a quarterback.”

One question Heacock doesn’t have is at tailback, where senior P.J. Mays resides. Mays would need an 18-wheeler to hold all his honors. He has been named to two preseason All-America teams, preseason All-Gateway, and is on the Walter Payton Award watch list for the best I-AA running back.

Mays also ranks second in the Gateway in career touchdowns with 35.

“You never really stop him . because he’s one of the premier running backs in I-AA football,” Harbaugh said. “But the idea is, you’ve got to get people around him.”

Western held Mays to 57 rushing yards and 28 receiving in a 24-14 road win last year – a victory that pushed Western’s season over the top.

But after the WIU debacle, Western isn’t as worried about Mays, or anyone else with a ‘Y’ on their helmet, as they are the faces in the mirror.

“All we can worry about is us,” Harbaugh said. ” We’re the focal point now.”

The win at Youngstown State last season propelled the Toppers into championship contention. This year, a win would keep them on life support. They would still need some critical care to make the playoffs.

Saturday could be a make-or-break game before Western travels to No. 2 McNeese State and No. 6 Northern Iowa.

With 18 juniors and seniors starting for the Toppers, if there is any reason for optimism in the face of the most daunting schedule in recent memory, it is because Harbaugh can count on leadership.

“That’s what you hope for,” Harbaugh said. “Whether the leadership is there is what these next three weeks will tell, and whether that leadership will stand up.”

Those questions will be answered beginning at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Smith Stadium.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]