Football notebook: Toppers impressed by backup Mauro

Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews (center), is brought down by Arkansas State defensive back Chaz Scales (right) and Don Jones 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. In the last matchup, The Hilltoppers lost 22-26.

Lucas Aulbach

JONESBORO, Ark. — Redshirt freshman James Mauro proved WKU has depth at the quarterback position on Saturday.

He was called in for his first significant playing time at the start of the second half against Arkansas State, with his team down 13-0.

Three drives and two touchdown passes later, WKU (4-1, 1-0 Sun Belt Conference) had 14 points and the lead for good as the Toppers went on to win 26-13 in Liberty Bank Stadium.

Mauro finished 8-of-12 for 104 yards and two touchdown throws.

He entered the game after senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, WKU’s starter, left the game late in the second half with a knee injury.

The extent of the injury is not yet known and he didn’t return to the game, though he was on the sideline.

Junior running back Antonio Andrews said the Toppers didn’t lose any faith in their comeback hopes when Jakes went down.

“We’ve got full confidence in James and Brandon (Doughty, WKU’s third-string quarterback),” Andrews said. “When a guy goes down, we’ve got the next guy ready to step up.”

Both of Mauro’s touchdown receptions went to sophomore tight end Mitchell Henry, who said he was impressed with Mauro’s poise after sitting out his first year at WKU.

“There’s no question he was ready,” he said. “He’s been preparing for this all last year — all this year, too. He works hard and he’s one of the hardest workers on the team.”

Coach Willie Taggart said he was just as impressed with Henry’s performance. The former Elizabethtown High School standout finished with four receptions for 43 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was good to see Mitch get back in the fold of things and get him a couple touchdowns,” Taggart said. “He missed most of training camp with an injury and he’s just now getting back into football shape and starting to go.”

Saturday a tale of two halves

WKU looked like it fielded two different teams in the first and second halves on Saturday.

The first half against ASU (2-3, 0-1) was a disaster for WKU. The Toppers went into the locker room down 13-0 and looking for answers on offense after posting just 114 total yards.

Naturally, that didn’t sit well with Taggart.

“I was ticked we weren’t playing our football,” Taggart said. “We weren’t playing like WKU should play. We came in saying it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Andrews said everyone on the team knew Taggart wouldn’t be happy at halftime.

“When you look at that score, 13-0, you know Coach T is mad,” he said. “He gave us a good talk.”

Whatever he said, it must have worked. WKU scored 26 unanswered points in the second half and finished with 365 total yards.

A lot of the change in pace can be attributed to the quarterback change, but a strong half from the defense was just as crucial.

The WKU defense held the Red Wolves scoreless in the second half and intercepted a pass in ASU territory in the hire quarter that set Mauro and the offense up for their second touchdown.

Taggart said he had some strong words for his defense at halftime after he saw several discouraged players.

“I was more upset with their heads being down,” the coach said. “I thought our defense had played well, they only got two field goals and a touchdown, could have played a little better at the end of the first half, but the defense played well enough. I said, ‘There’s no reason to have your head down.’”

With a 4-1 record on the season, Taggart had something to smile about when the game was over.

“To be up 4-1 right now is a great sign for our football team and it goes back to what we said at the beginning,” he said. “We weren’t gonna blame anyone, we weren’t gonna make any excuses, we had to do something. Our team is doing something, now.”

Toppers take place among national leaders

On the heels of a 26-13 comeback win, several members of the WKU football team are near the top of some NCAA statistical categories.

Senior defensive end Quanterus Smith currently ranks No. 1 in the NCAA in sacks per game at 1.63. He also ranks No. 3 in total sacks with 6.5 and is a big part of a WKU pass rush which is currently the No. 30 unit in the country.

Junior running back Antonio Andrews is also racking up some serious numbers. He currently ranks No. 2 in the nation with 213 all purpose yards per game and his average of 108.4 rushing yards per game puts him at No. 15 in the NCAA.

Both players played big roles in WKU’s win on Saturday.

Smith had a season-high 3.5 sacks and a total of seven tackles, while Andrews rushed for a career-high 215 yards and a touchdown while posting a total of 261 all-purpose yards.

Sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling, who did not play on Saturday, still remains tied for the NCAA lead in interceptions per game with one.