Stephens: Taggart, WKU make their signature moment

WKU head football coach Willie Taggart returns to Smith Stadium along side the football team following a victory over University of Kentucky at Commonwealth stadium. 

Brad Stephens

LEXINGTON — It all came together on one play for WKU on Saturday night.

Three years of ending losing streaks, three years of building a system, three years of building a “Who’s got it better than us?” swagger came down to one gutsy trick play with everything on the line.

And as quarterback Kawaun Jakes caught a halfback pass from running back Antonio Andrews just inches off the ground, turned upfield and crossed the goal line, the Toppers made the biggest statement they’d made in years.

The Toppers beat an SEC school. They beat their “big brother.” They beat Kentucky.

“Play to win,” is the phrase Jakes kept going back to when discussing the two-point conversion play after the game, and it was a play call that took some guts for coach Willie Taggart to make.

If Andrews’ halfback pass hits the grass before it hits Jakes’ hands, WKU walks out of Commonwealth Stadium losers after leading 17-0 at one point in the second quarter.

The Toppers would’ve blown their best chance to get that landmark victory to prove they belong with the big boys.

Instead it was WKU putting itself on the map, beating the team its players, coaches and fans hate more than any other.

Two years ago WKU took a 63-28 licking in Commonwealth Stadium.

As Taggart said, UK “beat the brakes off” WKU that day.

It was just the second game for the Toppers with Taggart as coach, and part of a losing streak that eventually reached 26 games.

Look back at that day, a day when WKU was physically no match for the Wildcats, and then at Saturday, a day when the Toppers beat that team, and its hard to imagine any team making a more radical change over such a short span of time.

Who would’ve imagined that, 24 months after his team let UK score 63 points, Taggart would be grinning ear-to-ear in a t-shirt bearing his own face after WKU just beat those same Wildcats?

While the state’s “flagship” university appears headed for a disastrous season, Taggart has taken a rising directional school and turned it into a program no team wants on its schedule.

While he may not always say the right thing to the media, while his slogans and catchphrases may come across as a little goofy or corny at times, make no mistake about it: Willie Taggart is one heck of a program builder.

“We had the coaching change and everything just changed from there,” Jakes said after the game.

Taggart inherited a program that didn’t have any direction and built it his way.

The Toppers were going to get rid of a spread offense that wasn’t working and use a run-based West Coast offense he learned from his mentor, Jim Harbaugh.

Taggart built a system around running the football relentlessly and bruising defenses that were used to worrying about the pass.

Instead of just recruiting guys that lived near Kentucky, Taggart and his staff circled the state of Florida and turned it into their feeding ground.

They were going to get SEC-caliber athletes to give them a competitive advantage in the Sun Belt.

And finally, when it came to the games themselves, WKU wasn’t going to back down to any man or any program, as Taggart would say.

The Toppers stood mano-a-mano to No. 1 Alabama last week, giving the Crimson Tide more struggles than anyone else has this year, even if only in a 35-0 loss.

Then they came to Kentucky on Saturday, not just hoping to beat the Wildcats, a team they’d never beaten from a conference they’d never beaten.

No, WKU expected to win and it did just that.

Taggart showed a lot of guts by sending his offense back on the field after Andrews’ third touchdown run of the night brought WKU within one point.

Why try to win to in double overtime when you can do it right now?

So Taggart opened up the playbook, called the halfback pass and watched as Jakes ran into the end zone to clinch one of the biggest wins in school history.

This game will be remembered as a “where were you?” night for WKU fans, and it should.

It was one night, one game, one play where everything came together for their team.

How can it get any better than that?