Hilltoppers look to cap historic season in Miami

December 5, 2015: Western Kentucky defensive back Branden Leston (31) celebrates his interception with teammates against Southern Miss during the first half of the Conference USA championship game at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nick Wagner/CSM

By: Billy Rutledge

The No. 25 ranked WKU football team will play one final time this season, marking the end of one of the greatest Hilltopper football seasons of all-time.

Monday at 1:30 (CST) WKU will face the University of South Florida in the Miami Beach Bowl. The game, broadcasted on ESPN, will be the third FBS bowl game in program history.

The Hilltoppers (11-2, 8-0) are coming off their first championship since 2002, their first at the FBS level, as they obtained the C-USA championship title after defeating Southern Miss 45-28 at L.T. Smith Stadium.

With their primary goal complete, the bowl game offers Hilltopper fans one final time to watch this WKU team cap off a historic season.

“I think our guys are starting to get locked in,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “They understand the importance of this football game. Really when it comes down to a bowl game like this, the teams are going to be equally matched, so it’s going to be down to who wants it the most, who’s going to come out and compete to the end.” 

The Hilltoppers are seeking to win consecutive postseason games for the first time in the school’s FBS history. WKU won its first last season in the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl defeating Central Michigan 49-48.

This year, the opponent will be the South Florida Bulls (8-4, 6-2) who hail from the American Athletic Conference (AAC). The Bulls also have been victorious in seven of their last eight games.

It will be the seventh meeting all-time between WKU and USF but only the third since the two programs became FBS schools, with WKU making the jump in 2009. WKU and South Florida share a distinction with five others to reach their third bowl game within seven years of making the move to the FBS.

The game will also mark a reunion with former WKU player, assistant coach and head coach Willie Taggart, who is the head coach for South Florida.

Taggart was 16-20 in his three seasons as WKU’s head coach, served as an assistant coach from 1999-06 and was a four-year letter winner at quarterback from 1995-98. Taggart’s jersey number (1) is one of four jerseys retired by the program.

“It’s pretty interesting when you’re sitting and you’re watching film and evaluating,” Taggart said. “You’re looking at L.T. Smith Stadium and you look up and you see Jackie and Jack Harbaugh Stadium Club. You remember those things and you remember the end zone you scored your first touchdown in. That’s pretty weird, for three years I hadn’t seen that and now we’re evaluating those guys, trying to put together a game plan, but it will be fun.”

Dating back to last season, the Hilltoppers have won 15 consecutive games against Group of 5 teams, including teams from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, and independents.

They will look to continue the streak in Miami on Monday, a place where many current Hilltoppers reside. In fact, WKU has 10 players on the roster with ties to Miami and as many as 25 from the state of Florida with a number of those centered around the Tampa/Clearwater region.

Coach Brohm will use this opportunity in the Sunshine state to recruit local talent along with trying to obtain another accolade on a remarkable season.

“It’s a big test for us. They’re really good on defense, and I’m not just saying that,” senior quarterback Brandon Doughty said. “They are fantastic on defense. We’re going to have to do some things that are a little unorthodox. We are ready to kind of test ourselves against a tough opponent closer to their home than our home, it’s going to be a challenge for us, and I’d like to see our team react.”

WKU comes into the game led by one of the most dangerous offenses in the country. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty will play his final game for the red and white as he currently holds the program record in a multitude of categories including pass completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and completion percentage.

A large part of Doughty’s recent success is due to his weapons at receiver. The Hilltoppers are one of five teams in the nation with five receivers with 30 or more receptions (Arizona, BYU, Texas Tech, and Washington State) as Taywan Taylor (79), Jared Dangerfield (76), Nicholas Norris (58), Antwane Grant (48) and Tyler Higbee (38) all completed the feat.

WKU is also just three points away from a new school scoring record for the second year in a row. Last year, the Hilltoppers tallied 577 points through 13 games to shatter the previous record of 432, set in 2002.

“It’s going to be a very exciting game, very competitive,” senior linebacker Nick Holt said. “We want to win really badly and so do they. We are a physical team and so are they so it’s going to be a classic football game between two competitive teams.”