Stephens: ‘Tunnel workers’ the stars in WKU’s rout of Southern Miss

Junior offensive lineman Ed Hazelett, far right, blocks Southern Miss defensive back Jacorius Cotton (28) to provide a running lane for WKU running back Antonio Andrews during Saturday’s game against Southern Miss at Smith Stadium.

Brad Stephens

WKU coach Willie Taggart likes to call his offensive lineman the “tunnel workers.”

They work hard to build a team infrastructure, Taggart says, without getting the recognition.

Well tonight it’s time to give the tunnel diggers their due ink.

On Saturday night against Southern Mississippi you might as well have cued James Earl Jones’ Field of Dreams speech and changed the front five’s nickname to “an army of steamrollers.”

Right tackle Seth White, right guard Adam Smith, center Sean Conway, left guard Luis Polanco and left tackle Ed Hazelett paved the way for 369 rushing yards in WKU’s 42-17 win.

Two backs, Antonio Andrews and Leon Allen, ran for 136 and 132 yards apiece.

Whenever one guy goes for a 100-plus yards, you know he had a good game.

When two guys do it on the same night, you know they had a lot of help.

And while the numbers were impressive for the running game, the manner in which those yards accumulated were even more impressive.

With his mentor Jack Harbaugh on hand, Taggart kept calling Harbaugh’s favorite play — iso.

Harbaugh loves that play so much that when he dies, he wants a diagram of the play on his tombstone, Taggart said.

In non-technical terms, the iso is pretty much football at its simplest.

Your offensive line pushes back their defensive line, and the running back goes through the hole.

Taggart called it more than 20 times, he estimated after the game.

It’s a play that sets up a battle in the trenches, and that was a battle WKU won throughout the game.

Most of the time Andrews and Allen weren’t touched until they had built up a 10-yard head of steam and were into the secondary.

Do that enough times during a game, and you’ll pile up 369 rushing yards.

“Whenever you can get two 100-yard rushers, those tunnel workers have done a great job,” Taggart said. “Those guys went out and got physical and they kept coming off the sidelines saying, ‘Coach, keep running it.'”

Especially impressive was the performance of “Big” Ed Hazelett.

Big Ed has been around the program for awhile now but has never been quite able to get on the field and make the impact fans would expect when seeing his 6-foot-8, 318 pound frame.

He finally got his chance tonight with starter Cameron Clemmons out with an ankle injury.

Hazelett did exactly what he was supposed to do, protecting quarterback Kawaun Jakes’ blind side and setting the edge for WKU’s rushing attack.

“When Cam went down, (offensive line coach Walt Wells) and I talked about it and said, ‘We’ll go with Ed, and Ed’s going to do a great job, too,'” Taggart said. “We told him we believe in him.

“That’s what great teams do. When one guy goes down, the next guy steps up. We always preach that… He did a great job.”

For the last two years WKU’s identity to the outer world was Bobby Rainey.

The All-American not only set school records for single-season and all-time rushing yards, he gave the fans an identifiable face of the program.

When he graduated a lot of us wondered who would take over that role, who would be the new “guy” for WKU.

But while most fans were struck by Rainey-mania, the real roots of a legitimate Footbal Bowl Subdivision program were being spread in the front lines.

“Championship teams have a great offensive line and a great defensive line,” Taggart said. “That’s where it all starts.

After the win on Saturday, it doesn’t appear that just one player will be the Toppers’ new focal point.

Rather, WKU will be winning its games up front, in the trenches, with a bunch of tunnel workers.