WKU’s comeback effort falls short in heartbreaking loss to FIU

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes evades FIU sophomore linebacker Winston Fraser during WKU’s 28-21 loss to the Panthers at FIU Field. The Toppers had a shot at tying late in the fourth quarter, but redshirt freshman receiver Willie McNeal dropped a fourth-down pass from Jakes in the endzone.

Zach Greenwell

Sun Belt play had been viewed as a new day for WKU and Head Coach Willie Taggart.

But after the Toppers’ conference opener Saturday at Florida International, Taggart said bad habits made the game a lot like the 24 straight losses that came before it.

WKU (0-5, 0-1 Sun Belt) surrendered 235 rushing yards to the Golden Panthers and slipped to a 21-0 deficit at one point in the first half, eventually falling 28-21 at FIU Stadium in Miami.

“We didn’t come out ready to play like I thought we were,” Taggart said via phone interview after the game. “Defensively, we almost reverted back to the Nebraska game (a 49-13 loss). We had guys miss a lot of tackles. They picked up a lot of those rushing yards because we missed tackles.”

Despite the sluggish start, the Toppers still had a chance to tie in the waning minutes of the game.

WKU took possession of the ball at the FIU 36-yard line down 28-21 with 3:07 remaining and worked its way down to the 22 before facing a fourth-down situation.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes fired a pass to freshman receiver Willie McNeal in the endzone, but the ball bounced off McNeal’s hands to effectively end the game.

“We showed that we weren’t going to quit,” Taggart said. “We kept coming back and kept coming back, and it could have gone into overtime there at the end.”

FIU’s first drive stalled on three plays, but the Golden Panthers marched 73 yards in less than two minutes on their second try, capped by a 12-yard touchdown run by T.Y. Hilton on a reverse with 9:23 left in the first.

After WKU’s next two drives ended with a missed 44-yard field goal by junior kicker Casey Tinius and a punt following a three-and-out, FIU running back Darian Mallary put the Golden Panthers up 14-0 with a 5-yard score with 12:24 remaining in the second quarter.

The touchdown was set up by a 33-yard reception by Hilton and a 37-yard run by Mallary to the 5-yard line.

Darriet Perry, another FIU running back, added a 4-yard touchdown run with 8:09 left in the second.

“Defensively, we weren’t locked in early and got down 21-0, and that’s a very difficult hole to climb out of,” senior linebacker Chris Bullard said.

That’s when WKU’s offense showed up.

It wasn’t until 3:28 left in the half that the Toppers finally got on the scoreboard, when Jakes hooked up with sophomore tight end Jack Doyle for a 6-yard touchdown pass.

Jakes finished the game 14-of-31 passing for 193 yards and two touchdowns, but Taggart said his quarterback wasn’t as sharp as usual.

“Our quarterback missed a lot of throws,” Taggart said. “I don’t think he was locked in like he needed to be. I thought he was making up his mind before the snap a lot of times, rather than going through his reads and getting it to the right guy. He was pressing too much.”

The Toppers got the ball right back when freshman cornerback Tyree Robinson intercepted a pass from FIU quarterback Wesley Carroll at the FIU 43-yard line.

WKU advanced all the way down to the 2-yard line but was quickly backed up by a false-start penalty. The Toppers had the ball at the 3-yard line with three seconds remaining in the half and chose to take a shot at the endzone rather than kick a field goal.

Jakes tried to find Doyle again, but his pass sailed out of play to leave WKU down 21-7 at halftime.

The Toppers struck first in the second half, grinding out a drive of nearly seven minutes that Jakes finished with a 1-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak at the 5:22 mark of the third.

WKU’s defense continued to tighten, and the offense got a chance to tie late in the third after an FIU punt.

The Toppers took over at their own 3-yard line and moved 19 yards before Jakes fumbled at the end of an 11-yard scamper.

FIU regained possession, and Carroll strolled into the endzone for a 1-yard touchdown on a rollout keeper six plays later.

“We really battled in the second half and gave ourselves a chance, but we have to be more consistent and play smart and execute for all four quarters,” Bullard said. “We’re more than capable of winning. Now we have to do it.”

Jakes breathed some new life into the Toppers with a 53-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Dexter Haynes with 5:47 left in the game. But in the end, it all set up the heartbreaking finish that Taggart said he’s trying to keep in perspective.

“Our goals are still there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to go undefeated in this conference, so our goals are still there. We beat ourselves, and we’ve got to understand that if you beat yourself, you’re going to continue to lose.”

WKU finished with 299 yards of offense, outgained by FIU’s 343.

Junior running back Bobby Rainey had 94 rushing yards on 28 carries, and freshman safety Kiante Young led the team with a career-high 13 tackles.

Taggart said the way the Toppers lost was a hard pill to swallow, but he said they didn’t do themselves any favors.

Avoiding the costly shots to the foot is something they’re going to have to correct if they want to break a now-25-game losing streak, he said, whether they’re playing Nebraska or next week’s opponent, Louisiana-Monroe.

“I don’t think any of these guys are going to quit. They’ve shown that,” Taggart said. “But our guys have to understand they need to put themselves in a situation where we’re not talking about quitting. Come out on fire and get up on people so we don’t have to be in that position. Once we learn that, we’ll get that win that we’re looking for.

“We’ve got to do everything right, because we can’t afford to do anything wrong.”

Extra notes

True freshman running back Antonio Andrews had both his first career rushing attempt and reception Saturday night. He recovered a fumble against South Florida two weeks ago … Jakes’ touchdown pass to Haynes — a 53-yard connection — was the longest of his career and his first touchdown reception … Senior offensive lineman Mychal Patterson returned to the starting lineup, while junior safety Mark Santoro (neck) didn’t make the game trip for the second straight week … Saturday’s attendance at FIU Stadium was announced as 14,335.