Late collapse leaves Toppers at crossroads

The WKU student section watches as the Toppers’ fourth-quarter meltdown plays out before them on Saturday in Houchens-Smith Stadium. The Toppers led the Warhawks 24-7 with 1:21 left in the third quarter, but ULM won 35-30.

Zach Greenwell

Saturday was supposed to be the day it all turned around for WKU football, and things still looked that way through three quarters against Louisiana-Monroe.

But that’s when disaster struck for a group that’s known nothing else for more than two years.

WKU (0-6, 0-2 Sun Belt Conference) gave up 28 points to ULM in the fourth quarter Saturday, stunning a crowd of 15,142 at Houchens-Smith Stadium with a 35-30 loss — their 26th straight.

The Toppers led 24-7 with just over a minute to go in the third quarter, adding extra sting to a loss Head Coach Willie Taggart called one of the “toughest” of his career.

“We were in uncharted waters,” Taggart said. “We finally had a game where we were up, and we didn’t handle it well. That’s part of the growing process with a young football team that hasn’t won a lot.”

Many had been circling the ULM game as WKU’s best opportunity to break the nation’s longest losing streak, as WKU was favored for the first time this season.

The Toppers will have six more chances this season to stop the skid, which junior running back Bobby Rainey said is some motivation to move past the painful loss.

“Everybody’s upset,” Rainey said. “But that’s something we’ve got to get over if we want to have the opportunity to win for the next game.”

WKU plays at Louisiana-Lafayette next, but the specific opponent is hardly the story.

The Toppers have just one win against a Sun Belt team — a victory at Middle Tennessee in 2007 — since the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and none since they became a full-fledged member of the league.

“Willie has got to be proud of his football team, and I really felt for him,” ULM Head Coach Todd Berry said after the game. “They’ve got a decent football team, and they are playing so hard … so you know it was just a crusher for them.”

Crushing hardly tells the tale.

It took four straight touchdowns and a complete meltdown from WKU’s offense to vault the Warhawks to the win. When asked how it all unraveled, junior safety Ryan Beard could only shrug his shoulders.

“It’s frustrating, just like every other loss,” Beard said. “You don’t really know what to say until you see the film and see what happened where.”

Taggart said the breakdown won’t be a mystery on film.

But getting the program back on track still is.

“When you’re up, you’ve got to learn to step on their throat and keep them down, and again, we haven’t been in that situation before to know that,” Taggart said. “I told them that all we can do is go back to work. That’s all I know.”

WKU was in the same situation last season and finished 0-12.

Which leads to the million-dollar question: Will it happen again?

“I think those things can happen if I let them happen as a head coach,” Taggart said. “But I’m not going to let that happen. We’re going to keep chopping on that wood, and eventually it’s going to break.”