Toppers come back to start Sun Belt play 1-0

Arkansas State defensive back Don Jones (right) brings down Western Kentucky tight end Jack Doyle during the game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 at Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This is the second season in a row that Western Kentucky has begun Sun Belt Conference play agains the Arkansas State Red Wolves.

Lucas Aulbach

JONESBORO, Ark. — A shakeup at the top of the depth chart helped WKU score its first conference win of the season on Saturday.


The Toppers struggled early but shot ahead in the second half to earn a 26-13 win over defending Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State at Liberty Bank Stadium.


Junior running back Antonio Andrews was a workhorse for WKU (4-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) on offense.


He led the Toppers with 215 rushing yards, a career-high, and a touchdown.


The buzz after the game belonged to quarterback James Mauro, though.


The redshirt freshman started the second half after starter Kawaun Jakes left with a knee injury and led the Toppers on two third-quarter touchdown drives.


The extent of Jakes’ knee injury is not yet known.


Mauro was more than effective under center in the second half. He finished 8-of-12 for 104 yards and two scores.


Sophomore tight end Mitchell Henry was on the receiving end of those two touchdowns, finishing with four catches and 43 yards.


He said Topper fans shouldn’t be surprised about the strong showing by Mauro.


“He’s prepared for this, you know, he played some early in the season,” Henry said. “I had all the confidence in the world in him and I know everyone else did.”


The Topper offense couldn’t get anything going in the first half. They were held scoreless and posted just 114 yards in the first 30 minutes and fell behind 13-0.


The second half was a different story. The Toppers went three-and-out on their first possession of the half before hanging two touchdowns in the next two drives.


Coach Willie Taggart said WKU “just played better” in the second half.


“We played with effort and technique and not many missed assignments in the second half,” he said. “I thought that in the first half, offensively, we had a couple of missed assignments or our guy would get beat one-on-one and we had less of that in the second half.”


The Topper defense had a much more consistent performance. It held the Red Wolves (2-3, 0-1) scoreless in the second half and held quarterback Ryan Aplin, the preseason Sun Belt Conference player of the year, to 23-of-40 with one interception, pulled in by junior linebacker Xavius Boyd in the third quarter.


Several stats that were lopsided at the end of the first half had come back to earth by the end of the game.


The Toppers ended up winning the time-of-possession battle by seconds after the offense had the ball for less than 12 minutes in the first half.


The team also finished with 122 total passing yards after putting up only 18 in the first half.


The win was historic for the Taggart. The coach earned his first win as a head coach when trailing at halftime, improving to improved to 1-13 all-time.


With the defending conference champions in their rear-view mirror, the Toppers can rest a little easier tonight with the knowledge that they have a bye next weekend.


WKU’s next game is at Troy on Oct. 11.


Taggart said he still doesn’t think the Toppers have played their best ball this season.


“We don’t just want to be good, we want to be great,” he said. “We said earlier that great football teams are never satisfied and I don’t think our guys are satisfied yet.”