Topper seniors leave their mark on football program

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers running back Antonio Andrews (5) runs around the outside during the first half of Saturday’s game against Arkansas State. Western Kentucky lead 20-14 at the half.

Lucas Aulbach

Antonio Andrews hasn’t had a lot of time to think about his legacy at WKU this year, but he wants to set an example for the younger players in the Topper football program.

“Me and Leon [Allen, sophomore running back], sometimes when we’re chilling and we talk about a lot of stuff, he’ll be like, ‘Man, Antonio, you did leave your legacy here,’” Andrews said. “I tell him to go beat it and go set a new one.”

Andrews is the record-setter of the 2013 senior class — in Saturday’s win over Arkansas State, he broke his own single-season rushing record with 1,730 yards through 12 games. But he’s just one of many seniors and redshirt seniors that have helped WKU achieve its best record since joining FBS competition.

There were eight seniors in the starting lineup Saturday, and many of them left their mark in their final game at Smith Stadium.

Andrews was the workhorse on offense, finishing with 119 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown along with 58 receiving yards. Wide receiver Jamarielle Brown, a redshirt senior, had the play of the game, an 11-yard catch on fourth-and-nine to keep WKU’s final drive alive.

Seniors also provided the strength of the Topper defense as well. Defensive end Bar’ee Boyd and linebackers Andrew Jackson and Xavius Boyd, all seniors, were WKU’s three leading tacklers, finishing with a total of 30 on the night.

These upperclassmen were an important part of the most successful regular season in WKU football history — the Toppers have never won more than seven game since they joined in the FBS in 2008 — but they haven’t always been heroes.

Five years ago, the first season redshirt seniors were with the program, WKU went winless, finishing 0-12 in its first full season in the Sun Belt Conference. A year later, the first season 2013 seniors were eligible to play, the Toppers finished 2-10.

Redshirt senior fullback Nick Baisch said expectations have changed around the program in the time between his first year and final game.

“We expect to win,” Baisch said. “We want to win. It’s a winning atmosphere around here.”

The wins started coming for the Toppers in 2011 — WKU snapped a six-game losing streak on Oct. 6 in double-overtime against Middle Tennessee. The team won seven of its last eight games but was shut out of postseason competition. The Toppers have won at least seven games in each of the last three seasons.

Andrews said the wins came as WKU experienced a change in attitude.

“We went from having fun to all about business,” he said. “Our first year here, we were 2-10 and, we’ve progressed as the time went on. We truly learned how to truly play the game. We just try to continue to have fun as you’re learning it, and we’ve really gotten to know each other as well along the way.”

Changes came to the football program as wins piled up, though. After finishing a 7-5 regular season and accepting a bowl to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in December 2012, coach Willie Taggart, who was hired by WKU in 2009, left to accept the same position at South Florida. Current coach Bobby Petrino was hired days later.

Petrino brought with him an entirely new coaching staff and entirely new playbook. The transition wasn’t easy, redshirt senior offensive lineman Luis Polanco said, but the team made it work.

“One of the main things is staying positive, you know, with changing coaches and adopting whatever they bring to the table to us and relying on each other,” Polanco said. “We just say, ‘We have this new coach, we have to perform so we can win,’ and as you guys can see, each year we’re more successful.”

Even coach Petrino said he was impressed with the way the upperclassmen treated their new coaches.

“I appreciate the way they’ve handled the change,” he said. “They’ve had great attitude — they’ve worked hard. It wasn’t easy on them because any time you change, things are different, you go about your business different. But they’ve had a good attitude.”

Andrews said the seniors have had fun in their one season under the new coach.

“We bring a lot of excitement and a lot of life to the team,” Andrews said. “I know Petrino wasn’t used to a team like we have — you got different personalities, but we have a lot of characters that make everything fun, make it worthwhile, and it’s going to be a group that you never forget.”

At 8-4, the WKU seniors have likely locked up one more game before they take off the uniform for the last time. The Toppers are still waiting to hear which bowl they’ll be playing in.

Baisch said while he won’t forget his times on the field, his memories from the WKU locker room will mean even more to him.

“You’re not going to have the opportunity to be around these guys anymore,” Baisch said. “Every day coming in knowing that you’re going to see 100 of your friends every day — I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”