Stephens: Understudy Mauro plays the star in WKU win

Western Kentucky quarterback James Mauro (left) celebrates with offensive linesman Forrest Lamp after defeating Arkansas State 26-13 Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 at Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Mauro, a freshman, threw a total of 104 yards to score two touchdowns. 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.

Brad Stephens

JONESBORO, Ark. — James Mauro had spent his short WKU career preparing for this very moment.

For the first 16 games of his time as a Topper, Mauro was an understudy.

He was the guy who spent hours every week in quarterback meetings and on the practice fields preparing for his time to get in the game, only to spend Saturdays on the sidelines.

But when senior Kawaun Jakes went down with a knee injury in the second quarter, coach Willie Taggart looked down the sideline and pointed to Mauro.

Next man up. Go do something.

WKU was trailing Arkansas State 13-0 in its most important game of the early season.

The Toppers were as flat as the Northeast Arkansas terrain and were now without their senior leader, their starting quarterback.

If WKU was going to win its first Sun Belt Conference game of the year, it would have to be the inexperienced Mauro leading his team to the win.

Taggart knew his guy could come out and do just that.

“He’s sweet,” Taggart said. “That’s the beauty of it and he’s so smart and he knows our system. He was like, ‘I’m cool, Coach, I’m fine.’

“That’s what you like about him.”

After a three-and-out to start the half, Mauro led the Toppers on an eight-play drive and found sophomore tight end Mitchell Henry on a one-yard touchdown throw, cutting the Red Wolves lead to 13-7.

Then after an Xavius Boyd interception, Mauro got WKU the lead. This time it was on a beautifully thrown, over-the-shoulder, tight spiral that hit Henry’s hands in stride as he crossed into the end zone.

It was a 22-yard touchdown pass that couldn’t have been thrown better. It was the Toppers’ second score in less than two minutes.

So long, 13-0 deficit. Mauro had led his team to the lead.

Mauro finished his night 8-of-12 for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

Just as importantly, the calm poise he showed from his backup role spread through the rest of the team.

“He’s prepared for this,” Henry said. “…I had all the confidence in the world in him and I know everybody else did. He came out there and did great.”

From there on out the Toppers looked their old selves, letting workhorse running back Antonio Andrews run out the clock while the defense handled Arkansas State’s offense.

Meanwhile the Red Wolves looked a little shell-shocked.

They’d had a two-touchdown lead taken from them in just two minutes.

And an Arkansas State pass defense that held Jakes to a 3-of-7, 18-yard effort in the first half was beat by his backup.

“We had gotten to Jakes a little bit,” Red Wolves defensive coordinator John Thompson said. “Give credit to them.”

Arkansas State, the defending Sun Belt champ, left its Liberty Bank Stadium with an 0-1 league record.

WKU left 1-0, in a position to control its destiny for the rest of the year.

“Coach preaches it every week — you never know when your number’s going to be called,” Mauro said. “You’ve got to be ready and prepare like a starter. I came in and I did my job.”

Last year the Toppers learned what happened to when you drop your first conference game — you spend the rest of the year playing catch-up.

The Toppers don’t have to worry about that now, thanks in large to a backup that made the most of his opportunity.