WKU looks to make statement against Wildcats

The Alabama defense tackles WKU’s Kawaun Jakes Saturday, Sept. 8 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Lucas Aulbach

WKU’s first two games of the 2012 season were predictable blowouts — the Toppers were expected to beat Austin Peay and to lose at No. 1 Alabama.

It’s the third game on WKU’s schedule that’s been raising eyebrows across the state.

WKU (1-1) will take on Kentucky (1-1) on Saturday in Lexington (6 p.m. CDT, ESPNU) in a marquee non-conference game for both teams.

The Wildcats, who have won all three meetings between the teams in the past four seasons, lost to Louisville before rolling past Kent State last weekend. They have a new quarterback in sophomore Maxwell Smith and a coach on the hot seat in Joker Phillips.

WKU, on the other hand, is dealing with higher expectations than it’s used to.

The Toppers come into this game with a confidence around the program that hasn’t been present during the last three meetings between the teams.

WKU lost to the Wildcats 14-3 last season at LP Field in Nashville. But with the advances the program has made in the year since, some WKU fans are already penciling this one in as a win for the Toppers.

Senior linebacker Tye Golden, who’s been on the WKU roster for all three losses to Kentucky, isn’t in that group, but that doesn’t mean he’s not confident.

“It’s not anything that we think too much on — we think we can win every game,” Golden said on Wednesday. “This week it’s an SEC team, but we’re not backing down. We’re just going to come out here and play our game.”

Some Toppers might look at the Wildcats as a rival due to their proximity to Bowling Green and WKU. Senior defensive end Jamarcus Allen, though, said the Toppers are just trying to get another win.

“We’re going into this game trying to beat UK,” Allen said. “It’s not just because it’s UK. We go into every game trying to beat our opponent.”

Kentucky might not be as strong of a program as Alabama, the defending national champions and current No. 1 team in the country, but the Wildcats do play in the SEC, which has an automatic BCS bowl bid.

Coach Willie Taggart said the Toppers have nothing to lose and everything to gain by playing a program like Kentucky.

“I think we’re getting better when we play these opponents, these so-called BCS opponents,” he said. “Our football team is getting better every time we play them.”

With the level of competition between the two teams closer than it’s ever been, coaching figures to play a big role in which a team wins or loses, and Taggart has a lot in common with Phillips.

Both are in their third year at the helm of their respective teams, and both could use this win to bolster student support for their football programs.

WKU has had trouble filling up seats and getting fans to travel. The Wildcats, on the other hand, might need this one just to save their coach’s job.

Taggart said Phillips is a better coach than people give him credit for, and Kentucky, which has used a no-huddle offense to throw off opponents this season, has weapons that will challenge the Toppers, especially their quarterback.

“I think that no-huddle is really helping them and (Smith) is efficient with the ball,” Taggart said. “He’s getting it to guys where they can catch the ball and run after the catch, and that’s really helping them.”

The Toppers have yet to notch a win over a BCS opponent since they became a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Taggart said a win this weekend would rank among the best in program history.

“They’re still in the SEC — it’s an SEC opponent,” he said. “I hear a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, you guys should win this week; you should do this.’ I look at that as a sign of our program progressing and moving forward.”