Stephens: Toppers start Sun Belt play at the top

Sophomore Defensive Lineman, Rammell Lewis, wishes Arkansas State University fans peace and a good weekend despite mass heckling against the Toppers.

Brad Stephens

JONESBORO, Ark. — The first one’s the most important one.

And when your first Sun Belt Conference game is against the defending league champs, the team you spent the whole 2011 season looking up at in the standings, then it gets a little more important.

Last year, WKU dropped its league opener to Arkansas State, burying itself in an 0-1 hole from the start of Sun Belt play.

No matter that the Toppers rallied to win their last seven games of the year and finished conference play 7-1.

The Red Wolves took control of the conference from that early win going forward and rode to a Sun Belt title and bowl berth.

Considering those circumstances, WKU’s 26-13 comeback win on Saturday night over Arkansas State at Liberty Bank Stadium was the Toppers’ biggest win of the early year.

This season, WKU won’t spend October and November playing catch-up with the Red Wolves. No, this time WKU is squarely in the driver’s seat to accomplish what players and coaches have set out to do from the beginning — win the Sun Belt.

“We had a lot riding on this game,” said junior running back Antonio Andrews, who ran for a career-high 215 yards on Saturday. “This was our only conference loss (in 2011), kept us from a bowl game. Came out here and got this win, I don’t see nothing in front of us.”

Well, there are a few obstacles that lie ahead for WKU.

Games against Troy, Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette will all be good tests for the Toppers.

WKU’s Nov. 1 game against projected lightweight Middle Tennessee State even looks a little tougher after the Blue Raiders dominated Georgia Tech 49-28 on Saturday in Atlanta.

We’ll spend plenty of time talking about those matchups in the future.

But for the time being, the Toppers have passed their most important test.

Get used to Mauro-to-Henry

Redshirt freshman quarterback James Mauro didn’t just help save WKU’s Sun Belt championship hopes on Saturday — he gave an exciting glimpse into the future.

Mauro connected on two touchdown passes to sophomore tight end Mitchell Henry, including a beautiful, over-the-shoulder-in-stride, 22-yard strike that put the Toppers in front.

With the team’s No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 tight end, Kawaun Jakes and Jack Doyle, graduating after this year, Mauro and Henry could become the primary passer-to-receiver combo starting in 2013.

“He throws me the ball a lot in practice and I’m just used to it,” Henry said after the game.

Henry’s caught 13 passes in his WKU career, five of which have gone for touchdowns.

The former Elizabethtown High School standout is a sure-handed red zone target who will start getting a lot more touches once Doyle graduates.

It also looks like he has a good feel for Mauro, as evidenced by the 22-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown on Saturday.

Doyle’s a special talent that will be competing next year for a chance to play on Sundays. Jakes has also become an effective quarterback and strong offensive leader.

But the Mauro-to-Henry connection that we’ll see a lot more of starting in 2013 could be just as good.