Story by Mallory Tucker, Staff writer
After a 57-26 loss to Northern Illinois University at Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Illinois on Sept. 12, the Racers are traveling to Kalamazoo, Michigan for their next matchup against the Western Michigan University Broncos Saturday.
The Racers maintained a close score against their first of two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents during the first half, up 7-6 at the end of the first and down by just three points late in the second quarter.
A Huskie interception in the end zone changed the game’s pace, however, as Northern Illinois scored two drives later, entering the locker room with a 20-10 lead over the Racers.
In the second half, the Huskies returned to the field with a slew of blitzes and fronts unseen in the first half.
“It was kind of funny when I watched the tape,” said Head Coach Mitch Stewart. “It was a tale of two halves. I think the first half they were going to try to be a little bit more vanilla in all phases, and I think when they went into halftime that they kind of circled the wagons a little bit and said, ‘Hold on a minute.’ They really opened it up offensively.”
Stewart and the team were encouraged by this change in offensive pace, noting that they had sparked Northern Illinois’ interest in the game.
When it came to onfield behavior, though, senior defensive linebacker Jalen Harrington was unphased by the new patterns.
“Nothing was really a surprise to us,” Harrington said. “We studied them on film all week, so we kind of knew what it was going into the game, and what their tendencies were, and what they like to do. Just another Saturday, another game.”
Harrington, who caused a fumble that led to a Racer field goal in the Northern Illinois matchup, spent two seasons at the University of Louisville before transferring to Murray State.
He has played tight end, linebacker and wide receiver during his career, but said he’s finally starting to settle in and feel comfortable with his current position.
When asked about his forced fumble and 47-yard recovery, Harrington said it was just a part of the play.
“I read the play right, went to make the tackle and I got in a position where I could grab the ball and I just ripped it out,” he said. “It was just something that happened to go my way.”
Junior runningback Roman Clay also made waves in a big way against the Huskies, leading the team in rushing with 64 yards. He credited his efforts to the coaching staff and offensive line.
“They were able to open some gaps for us and we were able to take the opportunity to hit the hole and just get what we can get,” Clay said. “Coach Stewart’s calling the right plays, and we’re just all working together as a team and it was able to help in our favor.”
Heading into the Western Michigan game, the team will see lots of downtime as they fly out of Paducah and wait at the hotel for a 6 p.m. kickoff. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be focused on football.
“Being a linebacker, me and the linebackers kind of just get together and we might go over some of our tips and reminders with our linebacker coach,” Harrington said. “Or we might look at some last minute film. Other than that, we just kind of stay off our feet and just stay together to keep everybody focused on the task at hand, knowing every away game is a business trip. It’s not about going and having fun in the hotel and enjoying the time. It’s about staying together and keeping everybody focused on the task at hand.”
One of the tasks at hand for Harrington and the rest of the Racers will be containing Western Michigan’s sophomore running back Jarvion Franklin.
The first player to ever win MAC Rookie of the Year and MAC Offensive Player of the Year, Franklin put up 1,714 all-purpose yards during his first collegiate season. Franklin is rostered at six foot and 220 pounds, and Stewart is not naive to the size of players they will be facing Saturday.
“They’re huge, man,” he said. “They’re a lot bigger, especially on the back end defensively, than NIU was. Northern Illinois played with some 5’9”, 5’10”, corners that were real rocked up. Western Michigan, a lot of their guys are 6’, 6’1”. They’ve got a lot of length. They’re very big up front. Their linebackers are very long. They run very well.”
Even before kickoff against the Broncos, Stewart rests easy knowing that he’s already won a small victory over Western Michigan’s Head Coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck is the youngest Football Bowl Subdivision head coach.
While Stewart is the youngest Football Championship Subdivision coach in addition the youngest in all of Division I football. Stewart said he expects to see creativity on both sides of the ball because of the coaches’ youth.
“I’m the youngest and he’s not the youngest.,” Stewart said. “So at least I’ve got him beat at something no matter the outcome of the game. I’m not real wrapped up into that. I’m sure beforehand we’ll probably give each other a high-five or dap instead of shake hands, just because that’s what us young guys do.”