Editor's Note: This is another article in a continuing series of articles from past FCS championship games. This is the game story from Western Kentucky's 2002 title victory over McNeese State.
By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHATTANOOGA, TN.-Veteran coach Jack Harbaugh admitted Friday night that he was unsure if his 15th-ranked Western Kentucky football team could defeat top-ranked McNeese State in the NCAA I-AA championship game.
"I looked at this McNeese State team and asked myself if there was anyway we could beat them?"
Harbaugh's doubts were relieved a few hours later when his Hilltoppers completed an improbable march to the title with a dominating 34-14 victory before 12,360 fans and a national television audience on ESPN2.
"We knew we were a much better football team," said Harbaugh. "The question was how much better had we gotten?"
Harbaugh had good reason for those doubts. McNeese had thumped the Hilltoppers 38-13 on Sept. 28 in Lake Charles, La. The only team that had beaten the Cowboys was Nebraska.
But WKU had won nine straight games since then, including playoff victories over No. 2 seeded Western Illinois and No. 3 Georgia Southern in the past two weeks. That momentum showed on Friday as the Hilltoppers (12-3) came up with clutch plays repeatedly to shock the Cowboys.
Linebacker Karl Maslowski - only playing because of an ACL injury to All-American Eric Dandy midway through the season - set the tone on McNeese's first play from scrimmage, picking off a Scott Pendarvis pass and returning it to the Cowboy 27.
That set up a 16-yard scoring pass from Jason Michael (6-of-10 for a career-high 185 yards) to Jeremi Johnson and the Hilltoppers were off and running less than six minutes into the game.
Johnson, WKU's 275-pound senior fullback, had been doubtful for the game up until five minutes before game time. Suffering from the flu, Johnson had been hooked up to an IV in the locker room, while his teammates warmed up outside.
A critical part of the Hilltoppers' offensive game plan, the transfer from Indiana not only answered the bell, he caught three passes for 90 yards, the final two for 25 and 49 yards earning WKU key first downs to keep touchdown drives alive.
Johnson's 25-yard catch late in the first quarter came two plays before tailback Jon Frazier (27 carries, 159 yards) burst through the line for a 55-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0.
A 40-yard field by Pete Martinez matched a 30-yard kick by McNeese's John Marino gave the Hilltopppers a 17-3 lead.
After being in nearly complete control, Frazier's fumbled pitch in the final minute of the first half gave the Cowboys (13-2) a chance to turn the tide. But the WKU defense stopped McNeese at the six, forcing the Cowboys to settle for Marino's 24-yard field goal and a 17-6 halftime deficit.
"We knew if we let them into the end zone, they were going to come out in the second half with all the momentum," said senior linebacker Sherrod Coates. "Stopping them took the wind out of their sails."
But the Hilltoppers were facing a Cowboy squad that had outscored Montana State, defending national champion Montana and Villanova 74-24 in the second half of three playoff wins and had come back from deficits of 17-0 and 21-7 the past two weeks.
"It was important for us to weather the storm in the first half," said Cowboy coach Tommy Tate. "We were still in the ballgame."
But the usually intimidating McNeese defense couldn't slow down the Hilltopper attack and the Cowboy offense, which had gambled on six fourth down plays last week against Villanova, lost its nerve in this championship battle.
On its opening possession of the third period, MSU faced a fourth and one from its own 46 and decided to punt. Three plays later, Johnson turned a screen pass from Michael into a 49-yard gain and Frazier blasted into the end zone from the 21 to make it 24-6.
McNeese finally showed signs of life with an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 15-yard scoring connection between Pendarvis (21-of-38 for 244 yards) and Luke Lawton. Pendarvis added to the momentum with a two-point pass to tight end Jeff Hamilton to cut the lead to 24-14 with 3:49 remaining in the third period.
With the large McNeese contingent roaring its approval, WKU quickly silenced them with a 10-play, 79-yard march of its own to put the game away.
The Cowboys watched their comeback hopes evaporate when Michael completed a third and 13 pass from the Hilltopper 18 to Jon Frazier. Frazier slithered free for 54 yards and Michael was credited with a two-yard TD seven plays later.
Television replays showed that Michael's knee had touched the ground before he lunged over the goal line, but the score stood and Western Kentucky led 31-14 with just over a minute gone in the fourth quarter.
"We'd stop them, stop them, stop them and then they'd break a big play," said McNeese defensive tackle B.J. McNutt. "As a defense, you can't let that happen."
Arthur Wilson blocked a 37-yard Marino field goal attempt, interceptions by WKU's Corey Shaw and Charles Thompson off McNeese's backup quarterback Ryan Corcoran and a 23-yard field goal by Martinez ended any chance for the Cowboys to dig themselves out of a 20-point hole.
"There would be no possible way I could explain the emotion," Harbaugh said of his and the school first national championship. "If they play this tournament for 50 years, they'll look back on 2002 and Western Kentucky will be national champions.
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