Toppers preach ball control after Alabama

WKU running back Kadeem Jones and Antonio Andrews fight for a fumble against Alabama’s defensive end Ed Stinson during the first quater of their game.

Lucas Aulbach

Willie Taggart is serious about his team holding onto the ball.

Fresh off a turnover-fueled loss to No. 1 Alabama, the coach has a challenge for his players and WKU fans: Knock the ball out of three key football players’ hands anywhere on campus before this weeks game and you win a trip to Kentucky with the team on Saturday.

“Everyone that put the ball on the ground is carrying a ball around campus —literally,” Taggart said at his weekly media luncheon on Monday. “That was a true challenge.”

WKU (1-1) had three lost fumbles in the first half against the Crimson Tide on Saturday. The Toppers finished with four turnovers and lost to the defending national champions 35-0 on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Taggart took to Twitter hours after the game to issue the challenge to WKU fans.

The coach confirmed on Monday that the three players who fumbled against Alabama — senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, junior running back Antonio Andrews and freshman running back Marquis Sumler, will be carrying footballs around campus all week.

However, Taggart said he doesn’t anticipate any new faces on the bus to Lexington this weekend.

“Our guys will hang on to the ball if they want to come,” he said. “If they want to go on the trip, then they’ll hang on to the ball.

“Sorry, I just don’t expect for anyone to bring it back, but if they do I might let them try out. Maybe they can strip some balls for us.”

The turnovers were the story of the day in Alabama. The Toppers had some success moving the ball up and down the field against the Crimson Tide’s top-rated defense, gaining 224 total yards.

The fumbles buried WKU, though. Three fumbles the Toppers coughed up came during their first four possessions, helping Alabama jump to a 21-0 lead.

WKU recorded a fourth turnover early in the third quarter when Jakes tossed an interception on the run deep in Topper territory. The Crimson Tide scored its fourth touchdown two plays later.

The turnovers also negated a solid showing from the Topper defense.

Facing a Tide offensive line that has several NFL prospects, WKU sacked Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron a total of six times, including three by senior defensive end Quanterus Smith.

Smith, who was playing in his first game of the season after serving a one-game suspension against Austin Peay, said he thinks he can put up the same numbers against Kentucky this weekend.

“If I do the same things I did as far as preparing for Alabama, I’ll do the same thing for UK,” he said.

Smith’s three sacks weren’t able to make much of an impact on the outcome after the Crimson Tide rushed to such a large lead.

Taggart said it goes to show that too many turnovers sink the entire team, not just the offense.

“Everybody’s dreams, goals and aspirations go down the drain if you put it on the ground,” he said.

The Toppers have a whole week to hold on to the ball. Their next game, the third of the season and second against an SEC opponent, is at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington.

Kentucky, which beat the Toppers 14-3 in Nashville last year to kick off the season, opened this year with a loss to Louisville but scored a 47-14 home win over Kent State last weekend to improve to 1-1.

The Wildcats are currently listed as a six-point favorite over WKU and have beaten the Toppers three times since 2008, the only three football meetings in history between the teams in history.

Taggart said his team now understands what can happen when it turns the ball over.

“Those turnovers killed us,” he said. “Just like cigarettes, they’ll kill you.”