1-0 WKU prepares for defending champ Alabama

From left, WKU senior wide receiver Marcus Vasquez and sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal celebrate their victory after Saturday’s football game against Austin Peay. WKU won the game with a final score of 49-10. 

Lucas Aulbach

All summer, people asked coach Willie Taggart how his team would match up against Alabama, and all summer he told them the Toppers were focused on Austin Peay.

With WKU’s season opener in the past, Taggart finally addressed the defending national champions when he took the podium at the team’s weekly media luncheon on Monday.

“They are good,” he said of the Crimson Tide. “They are one of the best football teams out there, and to be honest with you, I think they might be the next expansion team to the NFL.”

WKU (1-0) is scheduled to face Alabama on the road this Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

The Toppers have momentum behind them after their 49-10 win over Austin Peay on Saturday.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes had one of his best games in a WKU uniform, completing 18 of 23 passes for 296 yards and four touchdown passes to one interception.

He was helped by a strong showing from the defense. WKU held Austin Peay to just 154 total yards and gave up just 11 passing yards.

Despite the statistics, Taggart said he wants to see a better effort from his defense on Saturday. He attributed most of the yards Austin Peay picked up to poor tackling.

“They got the majority of their yards from missed tackles,” Taggart said. “We make those tackles and their stats would really be bad.”

Junior running back Antonio Andrews was also an instrumental part of the win, with 228 all-purpose yards and one punt return for a touchdown.

Junior running back Keshawn Simpson had 60 yards on eight carries but left in the second half with a knee injury. Taggart said on Monday that he didn’t think the injury was too severe, but Simpson will have an MRI done on Tuesday.

Jakes and Andrews said they both understand what a win this weekend would mean for the program.

“Shoot, we’re still trying to earn respect,” Andrews said on Monday. “We’re playing the defending national champs. It would mean a lot to the city and to our conference.”

WKU will have its work cut out. Alabama has won two of the past three national championships, is currently ranked No. 2 in the country and is hot off of a win over No. 8 Michigan.

Despite the challenge, Taggart said the Toppers would not be intimidated by their opponent’s reputation.

“I think this football team is over that,” he said. “We’re going to play Alabama — they haven’t won a national championship this year.”

It’s not like WKU has never been in this position. Just last season the Toppers lined up against No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge, La., for a non-conference regular season game.

WKU hung with the Tigers in the first half before eventually falling 42-9. That November loss was the last losing effort for the Toppers and their only one in the last 11 months.

Lingering memories from that game could keep his team from being overwhelmed against the Crimson Tide, Taggart said.

“We played well the first half, second half we didn’t,” he said. “I think that game makes our guys understand we can compete with these guys. We can play with them.

“But we’ve still got work to do. We’ve got to finish games when we play them and we got to play our ‘A’ game if we want to beat teams like that.”

The LSU game is one of the only games WKU has played lately to compare to Alabama in terms of level of competition and stadium size.

Bryant-Denny Stadium, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., seats 101,821 and can hold over 106,000 people, making it the fifth-largest stadium in the United States and eighth-largest in the world.

Every guy on the field should be excited to play in front of that kind of crowd, sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling said.

“If you can’t be amped enough to play in that game, you’re probably in the wrong profession,” Dowling said. “It’s gonna be 106,000.

“That’s what every athlete looks forward to — the crowd going crazy. You’ve got to be amped.”