Toppers toppled in Manhattan

Keith Farner

MANHATTAN, Kan. – After being ushered in by a police escort to Wagner Field, Western’s football team held on to upset hopes until 8:56 left in the first half, when the floodgates sprang open.

The coin toss proved to be the only battle the Toppers could win, as they fell 48-3 to Kansas State before 45,844 mainly purple-clad Wildcat fans.

“The back-breaker was getting on the plane to come here,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “We had about a one and 100 chance of winning this game, and we did a lot of things that were bad but that was just one play in the game. That play is the separation. It certainly isn’t the difference between winning and losing.”

Western looked to have a chance when it held Kansas State to a field goal on the Wildcats’ opening drive. But poor tackling eventually allowed KSU to march through the Topper defense with ease.

While Western barely kept its long-running streak of 100-yard rushing games in tact, with 110 on the ground, the Wildcats ate up 240 yards on 51 carries, plus 172 yards through the air.

“One of the first times in four or five years we just didn’t tackle,” Harbaugh said. “I know these guys are quick . but when you’ve got quick guys on defense they should be able to tackle. Of all the things on the defensive side, the tackling is something we need to address very quickly or we’re in trouble.”

With a chance to get on the scoreboard and cut the 10-0 KSU lead, a botched field goal hold by sophomore Brian Claybourn led to a 73-yard interception return by senior cornerback Bobby Walker that put the nail in the coffin of Western’s upset hopes.

But senior quarterback Jason Michael blamed that play on himself, because on the previous play, third and nine, he forced a bad pass to stall the drive.

“It kills you because you can’t turn the ball ?over, that was a dumb throw by me,” Michael said. “I tried to make a play by throwing to a big receiver instead of throwing out in the flat and live to see another day.”

But Michael said the Wildcat defense also caused him to make some bad decisions.

“They just get on you, Tank Reese, he was on you now,” he said. “I got sacked one time early (when) I didn’t think there was anybody around me, and he was around my ankles.”

Surrounded by purple in every direction, Western did get off nine first-half pass attempts and made good on its preseason proclamation of a more liberal offense.

Michael finished 7 of 11 for 73 yards – the most for Western through the air in recent memory – to go with his 24 rushing yards. But even that wasn’t enough to muster a comeback.

“We just couldn’t get things going offensively and I wish we could have done what we did late in the game earlier in the game and things would have been a little different,” Michael said.

Like a snowball off a cliff, once KSU got started, it didn’t slow down. Sophomore running back Darren Sproles led the way with 135 rushing yards and a touchdown. And at the break, Western trailed 34-0. But the weakest link turned out to be the tackling.

“We were in position to make some plays and didn’t wrap up, didn’t pick up some turnovers we could have got and that’ll kill you especially early in the game,” junior strong safety Brian Lowder said.

Aside from senior kicker Peter Martinez’s 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to keep Western from being shut out, sophomore fullback Maurice Bradley was the only real speck of optimism for the Toppers.

Bradley led Western in rushing with 64 yards on 19 carries.

“We’re holding our heads high,” Bradley said. “We’ve got ten more games in the regular season, we can’t get stuck on this one. We can’t do nothing but build on this game right here.”

After Harbaugh started senior running back Jon Frazier, Bradley was the only back who could gain any momentum against Kansas State. Frazier finished with nine yards on 11 carries, while Indiana transfer Jeremi Johnson carried the ball just three times for 10 yards.

Bradley was the only thing Harbaugh was glad to talk about after the game.

“(Bradley’s) a horse isn’t he?,” Harbaugh said. “If we’re going to run the ball, he’s going to be the guy to run it for us.”

But to add injury to insult, the Toppers not only lost their season opener, but also senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves, who’ll be out three to four weeks with an injured knee.

Western will try to regroup and recooperate for its home opener agaist Kentucky State next Saturday at 5:30 p.m.