Stakes are high as ULM comes to town

Lucas Aulbach

The Sun Belt Conference does not play a championship game at the end of the season, which means every conference game of the season counts toward naming the league champion.

It also means games like Saturday’s matchup between the Toppers and a strong Louisiana-Monroe team will go a long way to determine the bowl berths of several Sun Belt schools.

“Some people are looking at it as a championship game, but we’re just taking it as another Sun Belt game,” junior running back Antonio Andrews said.

WKU (5-1, 2-0 SBC) and ULM (4-2, 2-0 SBC) currently share the top of the Sun Belt standings and are the last two teams to boast perfect conference records.

When they kick off at 3 p.m. at Smith Stadium on Saturday, something’s going to give.

“Every game is big, but the implications of this matchup is definitely something you’re excited about, and it’s going to be a great matchup,” senior offensive tackle Seth White said. “I’m excited about it.”

ULM has as much buzz as any team in the conference right now.

Picked to finish seventh in the league by conference coaches in the preseason, the Warhawks shocked football fans everywhere when they topped then-No. 8 Arkansas in their season opener.

They dropped two close games to Auburn and Baylor in the following weeks before a sizzling start to conference play.

ULM has some similarities to WKU — both are in their third year under a new head coach and are shining after several years in the Sun Belt cellar.

“I see them being very similar to how we were, being at the bottom and working your way to try to get to the top,” coach Willie Taggart said.

Despite the stakes, White said the Toppers are looking at this game as just another big game on a schedule full of them.

“Try your best to realize that every game is a big game,” he said. “You come out here, do the best you can all week, and that’s all anybody can do.”

If the Toppers want to keep their unblemished conference record, they will have to shut down ULM’s quarterback.

Junior quarterback Kolton Browning has been the motor for the Warhawk offense this season, throwing for 1,606 yards and 14 touchdowns through six games while picking up 363 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He currently leads the Sun Belt in total offense.

Browning has brought ULM back from the brink in his two past meetings with WKU.

He led the Warhawks to 28 fourth quarter points in a comeback win in 2010 before falling in overtime against WKU last season.

Taggart said Browning had been a “thorn in (my) side” during his tenure at WKU.

“He’s the real deal — call him ‘Real Deal Holyfield,’” Taggart said. “He’s a winner. He doesn’t ever quit. I think our football team realizes that now.”

WKU campus will have an energetic feel as the game approaches and Homecoming festivities kick off.

Taggart and the Toppers know all too well the distractions that can arise on Homecoming weekend. Just two seasons ago, the Toppers dropped their Homecoming game to a North Texas team that went on to finish 3-9.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes said the Toppers aren’t even talking about that game.

“We’re not really thinking about that,” he said. “This is the 2012 Tops. We’re on to better things.”

That game was Taggart’s first Homecoming loss. He said he plans on making it his last.

“All those extra activities are not going to matter to us if we don’t go out and take care of business,” Taggart said. “We’ve got one goal, and that’s to go out and try and win this ballgame on Saturday. Everything else really doesn’t matter.”