Football Notes: Taggart says Toppers are ‘ahead of schedule’

WKU players an coaches celebrate in the locker room Saturday after WKU’s 41-18 win over Troy.

Brad Stephens

Head Coach Willie Taggart raised a few eyebrows in July during the Sun Belt Conference’s Media Days, picking WKU No. 1 in the preseason poll.

He thought more highly of his team than other league coaches as the Toppers were picked to finish seventh of nine teams.

But WKU’s 7-1 Sun Belt record this season has validated Taggart’s preseason confidence.

And after beating Troy 41-18 on Saturday, the Toppers are guaranteed to finish no worse than second in the league and could earn a share of the Sun Belt title should first-place Arkansas State fall to Troy next Saturday.

Just two seasons after taking over a WKU team that went 0-12 in 2009, Taggart said his plans for the Toppers to rise to the top of the Sun Belt are “ahead of schedule.”

“After the Troy game last year (a 28-14 season-ending loss), from that day on I watched how these guys worked over the offseason and throughout spring ball and throughout training camp,” Taggart said. “They were determined to turn this program around.”

WKU achieved its 7-5 regular season record after overcoming a 0-4 start to the season.

The turnaround from a 2-6 league record in 2010 to a 7-1 Sun Belt mark this season is the largest in conference history.

The Toppers made the turnaround behind big years from a combination of Taggart recruits (sophomore cornerback Tyree Robinson, sophomore fullback Kadeem Jones, freshman kick returner John Evans) and holdovers from previous Head Coach David Elson (senior running back Bobby Rainey, junior tight end Jack Doyle, senior left tackle Wes Jeffries).

Jeffries said he “couldn’t find the words” to explain the reversal of WKU’s football fortunes.

“We started off 0-4. We turned it completely around and now we’re one of the best teams in the conference,” he said. “It’s just crazy.”

Two years after not winning a single game all season, the Toppers are waiting to hear whether or not they will take part in the first bowl of their Football Bowl Subdivision era.

Taggart said the 2011 team’s success has been a big step for the program, but that WKU football is “still not where we want it to be at.”

“We’ve got to keep working, keep recruiting and keep getting better,” Taggart said. “Our guys have that mindset of expecting to win now.

“We’ve been climbing this mountain we talk about every week to be on top of the Sun Belt. Now we’ve got up there. We haven’t taken the Sun Belt over yet but we’ve planted the flag and let everyone know we’re here to stay.”

Jeffries gets a touchdown and a meal

WKU and Troy were locked in a scoreless tie early in the second quarter, with the Toppers facing a 1st and goal at the Trojans’ one-yard line.

WKU came out in an I-formation with Jeffries lined up at fullback behind sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes and in front of Rainey, filling a spot normally occupied by Jones.

Conventional wisdom would’ve predicted Jakes to hand to Rainey, who would follow Jeffries in for the score.

But Jakes instead handed off to Jeffries, who barreled his way forward for a one-yard touchdown run that put the Toppers up 7-0.

It was both the first career carry and touchdown for WKU’s senior left tackle.

Taggart and Jeffries said the idea of him carrying the ball came about during practice Wednesday, and that the opportunity was too good to pass up come Saturday.

“We got down there and Coach Taggart asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?'” the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Jeffries said smiling. “I was hoping to give the team a little juice because we were tied.”

The former Warren Central High School standout also played a big role in Rainey breaking the school’s career rushing record on Saturday.

Rainey had promised to take the offensive line out to eat should he break former running back Lerron Moore’s 4,396 career-yardage mark against Troy.

Taggart joked after the game that Rainey was going to take the line out to Waffle House.

Jeffries said he wasn’t yet sure where he wanted to eat, but said it would likely be somewhere a little classier.

“He took us to Shogun last year, so we’ll probably have to go there or Mariah’s, or something good like that,” he said.

WKU’s 12 seniors all captains on Senior Day

All 12 members of WKU’s senior class served as team captains on Saturday.

But not all of them were able to play in their last-ever game in Smith Stadium.

Senior defensive end Jared Clendenin suffered a broken bone in his foot on Nov. 5 against Florida International, and hasn’t played since.

Yet he still called the Toppers’ win on Saturday “the best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

“They kept fighting all year to give me and a couple of guys that’s injured, to give us the opportunity to come back for the bowl game,” Clendenin said. “I want to tell them that I appreciate that and that I’m real proud of them.”

Other notes

—Jakes finished the day 11-of-18 for 156 yards, and ran eight times for 51 yards and a touchdown. He’s 9-23 in his career as WKU’s starter, and 7-4 as a starting quarterback this year.

—The Toppers’ leading receiver was junior tight end Jack Doyle, who caught six passes for 101 yards. He finished the regular season with 52 receptions for 614 yards, team-highs in both categories.

—Junior safety Kareem Peterson nabbed his third interception of the year, while sophomore safety Kiante Young grabbed his second.

—Evans returned three kicks for 115 total yards, a 38.3 yard per return average.

—Senior kicker Casey Tinius left the game after spraining his right knee on a blocked kick in the first quarter. He missed his only two field goal attempts of the day. He was replaced by freshman Jesse Roy, who missed his only kick during the game.

—WKU is now 1-8-1 all-time against Troy.

—The Toppers’ final scoring drive of 16 plays, 94 yards over 9:22 was the longest of the season in terms of clock time.

—Taggart’s record as WKU head coach now stands at 9-15.