TROY, Ala. — Championship teams don’t have to play perfectly, they just have to win.
WKU, a team that has talked all year about wanting to be Sun Belt Conference champion, was far from perfect on Thursday night in Veterans Memorial Stadium against Troy.
But they still came out with the ‘W.’
The Toppers’ 31-26 victory wasn’t a case of flawless execution, like their win over Southern Mississippi, or gutsy bravado, like their win over Kentucky.
WKU’s (5-1, 2-0 Sun Belt) win on Thursday was instead a testament to making some clutch plays to overcome one of its more sluggish games of the year.
WKU fumbled five times, luckily losing the fumbles just twice.
The Toppers committed six official penalties, not including several more that were declined by Troy or offset by Trojan fouls.
WKU kickoff and punt coverage was porous, allowing a punt return of 54 yards and kick return of 39 yards.
Offensively, there were struggles getting the running game going and hitting some passes. Defensively, the Toppers had some trouble with Troy’s no-huddle offense early on.
Coach Willie Taggart blamed some of the sloppiness on WKU coming off its lone bye week of the year.
“We came out and we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be,” Taggart said.
This wasn’t a game WKU would’ve won a couple of years ago, back in the days of transitions and losing streaks.
Those were the days before the Toppers got serious about being champions and learning how to win.
Thursday night, instead of hanging its collective head, WKU manned up and made big plays it needed to to win a huge Sun Belt road game.
“Great teams find a way to win ballgames,” Taggart said. “We’re not great but we’re trying to be there and this shows our guys are not giving up.
“That’s something we used to do and we’re not doing it anymore. We’re fighting to the end, and good things are happening to us.”
Good things like a leaping touchdown catch by junior fullback Kadeem Jones in the third quarter that stretched a 21-20 lead to 28-20.
Or a 4th-and-2 run stop by senior defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen to turn the ball back over to WKU in the fourth quarter.
Or a push by the offensive line to let junior running back Antonio Andrews fall forward for two yards on a late 4th-and-1.
Or a late pass from senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes to Jones on a play action, gaining 17 yards and effectively putting the game on ice.
Those are the kind of plays that championship teams have to make.
One of the team’s leaders, junior safety Kiante Young, summed up these kinds of games best.
“It’s not always going to be easy and it’s not always going to be pretty,” Young said, “but a W is a W.”
There were plenty of reasons WKU shouldn’t have won this game, just like there were plenty of reasons it shouldn’t have won its last game, against Arkansas State.
In that game, the Toppers overcame a 13-0 deficit and game-ending injury to Jakes to win 26-13 on the road.
Thursday WKU overcame plenty of self-inflicted wounds and a 10-0 deficit to win 31-26 on the road.
Conference championships aren’t won with style points. They’re won with grit and the ability to make the big play when games are on the line.
That was championship the test given to the Toppers on Thursday. WKU aced it.