FOOTBALL: Toppers face tall order in Gateway

Keith Farner

Although the Gateway Football Conference doesn’t boast Jackie Chan or Chris Tucker among its league stars, the 2002 conference theme is “Rush Hour.”

Having and stopping a good running game will be critical as No. 21 Western (1-1) makes its second run through the Gateway gauntlet – the toughest of any I-AA docket – starting with Western Illinois Saturday.

Five of the league’s eight teams return their top rusher from 2001, along with Western’s one-two punch of sophomore Maurice Bradley and senior Jon Frazier.

As the conference enters its 18th season of play, good running is as visible as offensive linemen crowding a buffet table.

In the previous 17 seasons, the No. 1 rushing team has finished in the top three of the league standings 11 times.

“In the Gateway, we have to stop the run,” said senior outside linebacker Jon Drummond. “I mean, you can have a big secondary, but the front seven is the key thing. If we can do up front what we have to do with the front seven, everything else will work itself out.”

In one of Western’s biggest games last season at Youngstown State, the Hilltoppers held the Gateway’s leading rusher and 2001 Offensive Player of the Year P.J. Mays to 53 yards on 17 carries. But this season, that front seven will have to come up even bigger.

After being picked third in the preseason poll behind Northern Iowa and Youngstown State, Western is looking to solidify itself among the conference’s elite.

“I don’t think there’s a team in the league (that’s above everyone else),” Harbaugh said. “Like last year, Northern Iowa was picked fifth in the conference and they won it. That’s the way this conference is.”

And Harbaugh said the “Rush Hour” conference is getting better and deeper every year. Although the Southern Conference has national powers Georgia Southern, Furman and Appalachian State, the Gateway remains the top I-AA conference.

“Nothing in one year has changed my mind. I think the Gateway Conference is the premier I-AA conference in the country,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think there’s anyone from top to bottom that’s as good – maybe some as good but not better.”

That’s why Western knows it can’t afford to take a week off in league play.

“There’s probably two teams you could really go out and play average and still win, but its very, very tight,” Drummond said.

After finishing 5-2 and third in conference play in Western’s first season in the Gateway last year, Harbaugh said his team will have a big advantage this time around.

“We’ve seen all those teams once now,” he said. “Last year, there were about nine teams that we hadn’t seen. This year, we’re going into the league and there’s two teams we haven’t seen. Every team we’ve seen, we’ve matched, we’ve gone against them, and we know what to expect. That’s got to be an advantage for us in 2002.”

2002 Gateway Preseason Poll

Team (first-place votes) Points

Northern Iowa (24) 242

Youngstown State (5) 213

Western Kentucky (2) 191

Western Illinois 160

Southwest Missouri State (1) 132

Illinois State 91

Indiana State 68

Southern Illinois 55