Western hopes to topple Wildcats

Keith Farner

In many respects, Western and Kansas State have several things in common.

Look past the check worth between $250,000 and $300,000 the Hilltoppers get in return for traveling to the country’s breadbasket. Forget, for a moment, the I-AA versus I-A mismatch. Otherwise, the teams are very similar.

A suffocating defense, crowded backfield and a chance to return to conference and national supremacy are only a few traits they share.

Senior linebacker Jon Drummond said both teams do a lot of the same things.

“It begins with attitude, as the song says, ‘They bleed just like us.’ That’s how we’re approaching it,” Drummond said. “They lift weights just like us, they wake up in the morning, they put their pants on just like us, so it’s the same thing. They’re just regular players. They probably have a better meal plan than us, but that’s all.”

The two teams are similar within their respective divisions of college football. Western is ranked No. 18 in I-AA while KSU is No. 26 in I-A.

Western collapsed to No. 13 Northern Iowa and No. 3 Furman by a combined five points last season. Meanwhile, the Wildcats let games against No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 2 Nebraska slip away by just 11 points.

After KSU head coach Bill Snyder resurrected the program in the early ’90s, the Wildcats stumbled to a 6-6 record last season. But that didn’t prevent a ninth consecutive trip to a postseason bowl game.

Coach Jack Harbaugh’s squad, which he also returned to national prominence in the ’90s, had a disappointing finish last year with a first-round playoff exit.

But one area Western might have an advantage against the Wildcats is at quarterback, where senior Jason Michael has had the position locked up for weeks.

Snyder has had a quarterback controversy since spring practice between Junior Ell Roberson (a runner) and senior Marc Dunn (a passer). Just this week he decided on Dunn, while Roberson will still see significant playing time Saturday.

Both will no doubt depend on 6-foot-7 junior tight end Travon Magee, who redshirted a year ago. Magee will play a big part because Snyder lost his top six receivers from last season.

“You just play with the hand you’ve been dealt and I think we’ve got four or five guys who can step in and make a difference,” Snyder said.

Harbaugh said the uncertainty in preparing for an opposing quarterback is nothing he hasn’t seen before.

“That happens against a lot of people in college football,” he said. “It doesn’t happen so much in professional football because everybody runs pretty much the same offense. But in college, every week you see some quarterback on one team that does one thing where someone else does something else.”

On defense, it’s another toss up. Although Western has one of the best linebacking corps in I-AA, KSU boasts a few defensive playmakers of its own.

Junior middle linebacker Terry Pierce stood out during spring practice and used his 6-foot-3, 250 pound frame to wreak havoc on the field. And senior cornerback Terence Newman – who won the Big 12 100-meter sprinting title for the second straight year in May – is among the top defensive back prospects for the 2003 NFL Draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.

Newman is also on the list of candidates for the Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive back.

There’s also aptly named senior defensive tackle Tank Reese, who anchored a defense that held opponents to 96.5 rushing yards last season. But Snyder, who wasn’t willing to give Western any bulletin board material, was complimentary of the Toppers’ unit.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, if you can hold your opponents to 11 points per game (12.2 for Western last season), it creates problems for us,” Snyder said.

After watching film on K-State, Harbaugh said there isn’t much for his team to adapt, since both teams run similar offenses and defenses.

“We’ve seen it all spring. We’ve seen it all fall. So it isn’t a dramatic thing,” Harbaugh said. “They don’t present any problems that we won’t see, except (they are) bigger, faster, stronger, quicker.”

But does Western really believe it can win on Saturday?

“We come in and play hard against whoever is in front of us,” senior offensive lineman Chris Price said. “May the best team win. But I’m pretty sure the Toppers are going to give their all.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:10 p.m. Saturday in Manhattan, Kan.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]