Toppers complete improbable turnaround


Head Coach Willie Taggart celebrates with his team after WKU defeated Troy 41-18 on Saturday to finish the season 7-5.

Brad Stephens

What a difference two months can make.

WKU sat 0-3 in late September, coming off a 28-point loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Indiana State.

That loss was the 33rd in the team’s last 35 games.

Junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes had lost his starting job, only to go back on the field after backup Brandon Doughty went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Meanwhile the defense had surrendered 40 points two games in a row.

Head Coach Willie Taggart told fans after the Indiana State game not to give up on his team, but admitted “if they decide not to come I understand that.”

There were perhaps several Topper fans who gave up on the team and didn’t come back.

They missed one heck of a show.

WKU narrowly lost its next game to Arkansas State but then won seven of its last eight to finish with a 7-5 record.

Two months after the Indiana State loss the Toppers are bowl eligible and have a winning record for the first time since 2007.

WKU put the finishing touches on its regular season run with a 41-18 win over Troy on Saturday in Smith Stadium.

“It’s crazy,” senior left tackle Wes Jeffries said following the Toppers’ Senior Day win. “We started off 0-4. We just turned it completely around. Now, we’re one of the best teams in the conference.”

Saturday’s game was an illustration of the factors that led to WKU’s turnaround.

The Toppers ran for 338 yards offensively, dominating the Trojans up front, while the WKU defense held Troy to just 27 yards on the ground.

Meanwhile Jakes turned in another solid performance, going 11-of-18 for 156 yards while avoiding any turnovers.

Jakes has thrown just four interceptions in the Toppers’ last eight games after throwing eight during WKU’s 0-4 start.

And even after three missed field goals and an extra point, the Toppers still beat Troy going away.

 Taggart called his team’s 0-4 to 7-5 reversal “one of the great stories out there.”

“These kids, what they’ve been through, everybody told them they suck,” he said. “We got in our cocoon. We went out and took care of business.”

WKU’s turnaround from a 2-6 Sun Belt record in 2010 to a 7-1 mark this season is the biggest in league history.

It’s validation for Taggart, who picked the Toppers to finish first when Sun Belt coaches voted for the preseason league poll.

Despite his first-place vote, WKU was tabbed to finish seventh in the nine-team league.

The Toppers are now second in league standings and can share the Sun Belt title if Troy beats first-place Arkansas State on Saturday.

“Everyone thought I was crazy when I said we’re going to be No. 1,” Taggart said. “I picked us No. 1, but I truly felt that way.

“It’s big for our program. We’re not where we want to be at, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

WKU’s season may not be over yet.

The Toppers are waiting to hear whether or not they’ll be invited to their first bowl game since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2009.

Taggart said the team turning its season around to the point of reaching a bowl would be a direct result of how it responded to early adversity.

“The motivation for us was people telling us what we couldn’t be,” he said. “We said we were going to go out and label ourselves and I think our guys have done a great job.”