WKU’s Sun Belt schedule kicks off with defending champs

Lucas Aulbach

WKU is finding itself in another big game every weekend at this point.

Three weeks ago, the Toppers took on the defending national champions, Alabama. Two weeks ago they played in-state rival Kentucky, and last weekend it was traditional power Southern Mississippi.

It’s only natural then that WKU should kick off its conference schedule this Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark., against Arkansas State, the defending Sun Belt Conference champion (6 p.m., ESPN3).

In a season that has seen many “big games,” senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes said the Toppers are treating this week’s game like any other on their schedule.

“There’s nothing really special about it,” he said. “We’re just going to prepare like it’s any game and go out and play our hardest.”

The quarterback starting opposite of Jakes is one of the biggest concerns of the Topper defense this week.

ASU senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who was named Sun Belt Preseason Player of the Year, does it all for the Red Wolves.

The quarterback has 961 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns to go along with 152 yards and a touchdown on the ground in the four games the Red Wolves have played.

He even had a punt two weeks ago in a game against Nebraska.

“(Aplin) brings more than just throwing to the table,” senior safety Kareem Peterson said. “He can run the ball, and they like to try and do a lot of things to throw you off so you can’t just focus on him, which makes him dangerous.”

Peterson will play a big part in WKU’s efforts to shut down Aplin. He is scheduled to start at safety on Saturday as sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling serves a one-game suspension.

Saturday’s game will be the next chapter in what has turned into an interesting rivalry between these two Sun Belt schools.

ASU was the only Sun Belt team to beat WKU last season. The Red Wolves finished that year 8-0 in the conference, and the Toppers went on to finish 7-1.

WKU scored an overtime win in Jonesboro, Ark., the year before that.

In that game cornerback Derrius Brooks had two interceptions and ran in a two point conversion in overtime to give the Toppers their second and final victory of the 2010 season.

Sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal, who leads WKU with three touchdown receptions this year, said he’s not paying attention to the rivalry factor.

“I don’t really get into the rivalries,” he said. “If that’s the case, every game’s a rivalry to me. We’ve just got to go out there and do what we’ve got to do.”

Coach Willie Taggart said Saturday’s game isn’t important because of past rivalries, but because of the implications this win would have.

“We went through last year, finished 7-1 in our conference and that wasn’t good enough,” Taggart said. “If we don’t learn from that, we’re never going to learn. I think our guys understand that each game is going to count and it’s going to be a dogfight throughout the conference.”

The coach said he has encouraged his team to look at this game as a chance to send a message to other teams by beating the defending champions.

“They’re the defending champ and to be the champs, you’ve got to beat the champs,” he said. “They’re going to be that until someone takes it from them.”