Piece by Piece: Taggart claims WKU’s goals on track after UK loss

Head Coach Willie Taggart watches the final minutes of the Toppers’ game against the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. The Tops lost to the Wildcats 63-28.

Zach Greenwell

Willie Taggart, facing a daunting first four games as a head coach, said before the season began that the Toppers’ two primary goals were to improve each game and claim a Sun Belt title.

Saturday’s 63-28 drumming at Kentucky didn’t seem much better on paper than the Toppers’ 49-10 loss in the season opener at Nebraska, but Taggart said the signs of progress were simple enough.

“We got 20 points, so I think we got more,” Taggart said. “I think we got better. I don’t like losing, but we got better as a team, and we’re going to continue to get better. Our goals are still there.”

Offensively, WKU (0-2) had better production, led by another big-time showing from junior running back Bobby Rainey.

Rainey had 184 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, including a 59-yard dash to the endzone on the third play of the game.

Rainey said morale was high after he gave the Toppers an early 7-0 lead, but things went south in a hurry.

“We were excited,” Rainey said. “We hit first, and when that happened, everyone was excited. But then we came back and hurt ourselves.”

The euphoria of that first strike didn’t last long. Kentucky rattled off 35 straight points after Rainey’s run, capitalizing on a rash of WKU penalties and an interception by sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes deep in the Toppers’ own territory.

It took a 90-yard kickoff return touchdown by freshman receiver Willie McNeal late in the second quarter to even pull the halftime deficit to 42-14.

“It’s hard to play football that way, especially against an SEC football team,” Taggart said. “We can’t do that, and it was penalties after penalties at one point in the second quarter. We’re not good enough yet in order to do that.”

But for the second straight game, the Toppers said they left encouraged by their second-half showing. Rainey added his second touchdown of the day, and Jakes eventually hooked up with sophomore receiver Marcus Vasquez for a 34-yard score.

“If you look at them on film, everything they do is a plan to win,” Kentucky Head Coach Joker Phillips said.

“They run the ball. They take care of the ball, play really good special teams. They’re sound in what they do.

“They’re really close. I think that they will win a lot of games this year.”

Even if Phillips, a longtime acquaintance of Taggart’s, believes WKU will break through this season, Taggart said things aren’t that cheery yet.

Taggart said the Toppers — and perhaps Phillips — are the only ones who believe right now, and until they manage to put all the pieces in place, it’s going to stay that way.

Scoring defense is one of the biggest pieces of that puzzle.

The Toppers have surrendered an average of 56 points through two games, ranking them 119th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams as of last Saturday.

Taggart said that’s certainly not going to impress Indiana when the Hoosiers become the first Big Ten team to visit Houchens-Smith Stadium this weekend.

But Taggart said there’s still plenty of time — 10 games worth — to right the ship.

There’s not much the Toppers can do about a Sun Belt title until conference play begins in a few weeks, so Taggart said all they can do is learn from the lumps they take in the meantime.

“Why not stay positive?” Taggart said. “We’ve got a whole season ahead of us. We knew going in it was going to be tough. We said that from the beginning.

“They didn’t build Rome overnight. They didn’t. It’s going to take a little time and a little patience. We understand though that we’re going to get it.”