Stephens: WKU seniors go out the right way

Senior tight end Jack Doyle (from left) is brought down by North Texas junior linebacker Zach Orr and sophomore strong safety Lairamie Lee during the game Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Brad Stephens

A bunch of men that fought through years of heartbreak and adversity left Smith Stadium with smiles on their faces Saturday.

WKU’s seniors, some of whom have been around since 2008, walked off winners Saturday as the Toppers beat North Texas 25-24 in the teams’ regular season finale.

It was a game in which WKU had to stick together and find a way to get the job done when no one was expecting it — much like they’d done throughout their careers.

These seniors arrived in Bowling Green as the program sat at a crossroads.

Their first few years coincided with WKU’s lumpy transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the big-boy Football Bowl Subdivision. The change brought losing streaks, some excruciating losses and a regime change from David Elson to Willie Taggart.

They stuck together, believed in each other and got through the tough times.

That’s why Saturday’s win, which called for a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback, was a microcosm of their careers.

“This is a family and all my brothers came together,” said senior defensive tackle Kenny Martin, who tallied two tackles, including one for a loss. “When times get tough, family has to come together and we strived through the hard times and we succeeded.”

WKU fought through a lot of adversity Saturday, some of it self-inflicted.

Through much of the game the passing game struggled, leading to some three-and-outs that let UNT control time of possession, 36:17 to 23:43.

There were three turnovers — a Kawaun Jakes interception under pressure, an Antonio Andrews red zone fumble and an Andrews fumble right after WKU had forced a turnover.

Penalties cost the Toppers once again — none more costly than a block in the back that negated a magnificent Andrews punt return.

But in the fourth quarter WKU made the plays necessary to win.

A senior-laden defensive line got a pass rush on UNT’s Derek Thompson, forcing a bad pass that Jonathan Dowling returned for a touchdown, trimming the deficit to 24-16 and putting WKU back in the game.

Jakes, a four-year starter, hit Mitchell Henry with a perfect 43-yard pass on the Toppers’ next drive to set up a Garrett Schwettman field goal that cut the lead to five.

And then on the game’s ultimate drive, Andrews ran 21 yards for the game-winning score through a hole created by senior linemen Seth White and Adam Smith.

Andrews, who continues his march towards Barry Sanders’ single-season FBS all-purpose yardage record, was the star of the day, rushing for 230 yards and the winning touchdown.

But his performances of relative youngsters like Andrews and Dowling might not have meant as much were it not for the groundwork laid by the senior class ahead of them.

After a 5-1 start this season, a 7-5 finish hardly seems a remarkable feat.

But when viewed through the lens of a program that was riding a 26-game losing streak as recently as two years ago, finishing with a winning record for the second straight year is a special accomplishment.

That’s why it was only right that WKU came out on top Saturday and that its seniors had so much to do with it.

Now all that’s left for the Toppers is to obtain that elusive bowl berth and participate in their first bowl game as an FBS member.

“When we came in here we wanted to try and help this program, we wanted to try and build it to something it hadn’t ever been before,” Smith said. “We’ve accomplished a lot of firsts this year and hopefully we’ll get that bowl bid like we’ve been talking about and accomplish another first and to see the program come from where it was to where it is now is a great sense of accomplishment.”

The senior class has had its ups and downs, including plenty of both this year. But years from now, when fans step back and look at the careers of Jakes, Jack Doyle, Smith, Jamarcus Allen and others, they’ll remember a group that gave their all for the Topper football program and left a legacy to remember.

Saturday was the perfect way for them to leave their home field for the last time.