|Friday, December 20
Updated: December 21, 3:26 AM ET
Hilltoppers avenge earlier loss to McNeese State
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Jack Harbaugh could hardly believe he was the coach of the Division I-AA national champions.
After 41 seasons, the father of former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh finally reached the top Friday night. He guided Western Kentucky through a remarkable turnaround to its first football title, avenging an early loss by defeating McNeese State 34-14.
The 63-year-old Harbaugh stood in disbelief on the sidelines as the clocked ticked down to zero.
"I'm a very average coach,'' he said, reflecting on his 116-95-3 record in 19 years as a head coach. In all, he's worked at eight colleges and three high schools.
"There is no possible way to explain the emotion I felt,'' he said. "I was fired at Western Michigan (in 1986). ... There aren't many coaches that get a second chance.''
And not many teams like Western Kentucky get another chance.
Jon Frazier ran for two touchdowns and Jeremi Johnson caught a TD pass for Hilltoppers, who were 2-3 after a 38-13 loss to McNeese State on Sept. 28.
Western Kentucky won its final six games to reach the playoffs. Seeded 15th out of 16 teams, the Hilltoppers won three in a row to set up a rematch against the top-seeded Cowboys.
The only other loss for McNeese State (13-2) this season was at Nebraska. In 1997, the Cowboys lost to Youngstown State in their first championship game.
"It's hard to get here,'' McNeese State coach Tommy Tate said. "They don't give these national championships away. We have to earn them. We have to learn how to do that one day.''
Western Kentucky players and fans rushed onto the field and jumped on the word "Championship'' painted onto an adjacent hillside. A few minutes later, fans toppled the goal post and carried it around the stadium.
Frazier ran for 159 yards on 27 carries, his third straight 100-yard game and ninth of the season.
The Hilltoppers (12-3) weren't about to let McNeese State beat them a second time this season, taking a 24-6 lead early in the third quarter.
The Cowboys trailed at halftime of all three playoffs games and scored 19 points last week in the fourth quarter to beat Villanova.
Western Kentucky stifled another comeback by scoring immediately after McNeese State cut the lead to 24-14 in the third quarter.
Behind Johnson's block, quarterback Jason Michael kept the ball and ran 2 yards for a touchdown and a 31-14 lead with 13:49 remaining.
McNeese State drove to the Western Kentucky 9 on the ensuing possession, but a holding penalty pushed the Cowboys back to third-and-goal at the 19. Western Kentucky's Arthur Wilson then blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt.
Johnson, a 275-pound fullback, hauled in a pass from Michael for a 49-yard gain to the McNeese State 14 to set up Frazier's touchdown run on the next play for a 24-6 lead.
Johnson, who was fighting the flu and was close to not playing, had three catches for 90 yards. Michael, mostly an option quarterback, finished 6-for-10 for a career-high 185 yards.
Western Kentucky went ahead 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter when Frazier burst through the middle of the line and ran 55 yards to the end zone.
Peter Martinez kicked field goals of 40 and 23 for Western Kentucky, the last coming after Corey Shaw intercepted a pass from McNeese State backup Ryan Corcoran in the fourth quarter.
Charles Thompson intercepted another pass from Corcoran with 49 seconds left.
McNeese State struggled again in the first half and couldn't recover.
Starter Scott Pendarvis' first pass of the game was intercepted by Karl Maslowki at the McNeese State 38, setting up the Hilltoppers' first touchdown six plays later.
Johnson caught a short pass from Michael and ran 16 yards for a touchdown, pushing aside Western Kentucky's 310-pound center Eric Ravellette to make way.
In the third quarter, Luke Lawton caught a 15-yard pass from Pendarvis, and Jeff Hamilton caught a pass for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 24-14.
McNeese State played without starting tailback Vick King because of a bruised knee.