By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- The defending Gateway Football Conference champion comes to Stambaugh Stadium a bit skeptical.
Western Illinois is asking itself whether 23 days off will hamper its play Saturday against Youngstown State.
"It's incredible that we have had so much time off," Western Illinois coach Don Patterson said.
"It's going to be interesting to see how rusty we are," he said. "Hopefully, we've maintained some semblance of game condition in practice that it won't take us long to get the rust off."
Opening win: The Leathernecks opened their season Aug. 30 with a 17-13 victory over first-year Gateway member Western Kentucky. But they had Sept. 8 open and their game last week against Indiana State was canceled after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C.
"That was one of the hardest things I've had to do -- tell our football team they weren't going to play when it was something they were looking forward to, part of it to escape all that had gone on," Patterson said. "All we can do is regroup and turn our attention to Youngstown."
Patterson knows there are limits to what a team can do in practice to remain in game shape. He also knows that his team won't have trouble motivating itself to play the Penguins.
"They [the media] asked me last week if I was worried about a letdown for Indiana State [on Sept. 15]," Patterson said. "My answer was 'not at all because it's been so long since we played.' Our guys are just anxious to play another game, and the same thing will be true this weekend."
Trip here: The experience of traveling to Youngstown will be a welcome relief for the Leathernecks, especially after tragic events Americans have had to face.
"It's been crazy. It's been a struggle," Patterson said.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Patterson gathered his team that afternoon and talked about what had transpired.
"I said to them, 'Put your hands in the air if you know for sure that you lost a loved one today,' " Patterson recalled. "Thankfully, not a single player raised his hand.
"If we were Hofstra [N.Y.], there'd be a few hands in the air."
Served in Army: The time was especially emotional for Patterson, who had served in the U.S. Army. When he heard the Pentagon had been attacked, he immediately thought of friends whose lives were in jeopardy.
Those events only emphasized to Patterson and his team to focus on living each day to the fullest, to be "good students, good athletes and good coaches."