WKU secures bowl eligibility with win over North Texas

Senior running back Bobby Rainey breaks away from the North Texas University defense during a run for 64 yards in the fourth quarter at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas. on Saturday. WKU won 31-21 to become bowl eligible.

Brad Stephens

DENTON, Texas — WKU football is bowl eligible for the first time in program history.

The same Topper program that just last season broke a 26-game losing streak, lost 44-16 this September to Indiana State and started the year 0-4 has now met the six-win minimum requirement to qualify for a bowl berth.

WKU (6-5, 6-1 Sun Belt Conference) hit that milestone Saturday night with a 31-21 road win over North Texas (4-7, 3-4).

“I’m happy considering all the stuff they’ve been through these last few years, through this transition,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said following the game. “We all needed to give a little extra for these seniors. They’ve been through it all. We needed to do it and we came out and did it.”

The Toppers were led in the win by one of those seniors, running back Bobby Rainey, and a third-year starting quarterback, junior Kawaun Jakes.

Rainey accounted for 262 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, while Jakes went 19-of-29 for 231 yards and three touchdowns.

Jakes’ three touchdowns were a career high and the most for a WKU quarterback since Justin Haddix threw for three exactly six years ago.

“Tonight he stepped up big, and he stepped up when we needed him to step up,” Rainey said of Jakes. “That’s what Kawaun is doing this year, stepping up and being a leader… that’s what he did tonight.”

It was a big play created by Jakes right before halftime that gave the Toppers their decisive lead.

WKU was trailing 14-10 and facing a third-and-11 from its own 37 with just under two minutes remaining in the first half.

Jakes dropped back to pass, was pressured and rolled out to the right through a hole in the pocket.

Just before stepping across the line of scrimmage he uncorked a spiral to freshman wide receiver Tyler Higbee, who was standing alone next to the Topper sideline.

Higbee hauled in Jakes’ pass, turned upfield and sprinted into the end zone to give WKU a 17-14 lead right before halftime.

The Toppers never trailed again.

“We always work scramble drill, and I just happened to scramble right and Higbee was down the sideline,” Jakes said. “I just felt like the receivers were making plays and the o-line was making plays.”

Both Rainey and the WKU defense took over in the second half.

Rainey ran for 132 yards in the second half on 20 of his 37 total carries.

“That basically goes back to the spring and the summer, getting a lot of reps in practice and basically going full speed,” he said. “It carries over to the field in the fourth quarter.”

The Topper defense, which gave up 14 points and 192 yards in the game’s first 30 minutes, surrendered 130 yards and seven points in the second half.

Sophomore safety Kiante Young said WKU’s improved second half performance could be attributed to “determination.”

“Everybody on the defense just came together,” said Young, who finished with seven tackles and an interception. “We didn’t want to lose this game. We had a chance to make history, which we did.”

The defense’s biggest stand of the game came on North Texas’ first possession of the second half.

WKU stonewalled a Mean Green fourth-and-goal run from inside the one-yard line, only to have the play negated because sophomore cornerback Tyree Robinson lined up offsides.

But the Topper defense did the same on North Texas’ bonus fourth-down attempt, as sophomore linebacker Xavius Boyd and junior safety Kareem Peterson combined to stop Mean Green running back Lance Dunbar short of the goal line.

Taggart said he had “got on” the defense at halftime for committing several first-half penalties that allowed the Mean Green to continue drives and put points on the board.

But he said he was proud of the way the defense responded, and called their goal line stand “the biggest play of the game.”

“Those guys stepped up and made some winning plays for us,” Taggart said.

WKU stretched its lead to 10 in the last minute with a six-yard pass from Jakes to freshman tight end Mitchell Henry.

Rainey put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter with a one-yard touchdown run to give the Toppers a 31-14 lead.

The Mean Green scored a last-minute touchdown to close out the night’s scoring.

WKU broke on the board on their first possession when senior kicker Casey Tinius nailed a 42-yard field goal.

North Texas took its first lead of the game, 7-3, later in the quarter, on a four-yard run from running back James Hamilton.

Rainey hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter from Jakes to take the lead back for the Toppers at 10-7.

Mean Green quarterback Derek Thompson hit wide receiver Brelan Chancellor with a 20-yard pass later in the quarter to give North Texas a 14-10 lead.

That was the game’s last score before Jakes’ pass to Higbee.

Though WKU became bowl eligible with Saturday’s win, the Toppers are far from locking away a guaranteed bowl berth.

Sun Belt Conference leader Arkansas State accepted a bid to the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Saturday, one of the league’s two automatic bowl tie-ins.

That leaves just the New Orleans Bowl as a Sun Belt bowl to accommodate three bowl-eligible league teams, WKU, Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida International.

Should a team not receive a bid to that bowl, it would have to garner an at-large bid from a bowl who didn’t have enough eligible teams from its tie-in conferences to qualify.

The Toppers will get one last chance to stump for a bowl bid when they host Troy at 11:30 a.m. next Saturday.

Rainey said the team will need to turn the page tomorrow from its latest win to concentrate on the Trojans and a potential seventh win.

“We can’t get caught in the victory,” he said. “24-hour rule, and then we’re on to the next opponent.”