WKU sees improvement during second half at Nebraska

Senior wide receiver Quinterrance Cooper drags down Huskers receiver Niles Paul during Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. The Toppers fell to the Huskers, 49-10.

Zach Greenwell

It didn’t mean much to the outcome when Bobby Rainey bowled his way into the end zone for a 5-yard score – WKU’s lone touchdown of the game – during the fourth quarter Saturday night at Nebraska.

But the junior running back’s dash up the middle, which capped an 80-yard drive, resonated much deeper with the Toppers than the 49-10 loss displayed on the scoreboard when it was all over in Lincoln, Neb.

For a WKU squad that was held to six punts in the first half and went into the locker room trailing 21-0, clawing its way to 10 second-half points showed Head Coach Willie Taggart that the Toppers have some grit.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better from where we were, and our guys didn’t quit,” Taggart said. “We’re going to go back and evaluate this film and correct our mistakes – make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.”

The mistakes were evident for the Toppers.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes said the crowd of 85,555 at Memorial Stadium rattled WKU for nearly three quarters, allowing Nebraska to jump out to a 28-0 lead before junior kicker Casey Tinius spoiled the shutout with a 25-yard field goal.

“Some people came out and weren’t prepared for the crowd, but we just got relaxed,” Jakes said. “The coaches gave us some positive words, and we tried to play Western football.”

In last year’s season opener at Tennessee, WKU held the Volunteers scoreless for the entire first quarter. Nebraska redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez put the Huskers up 7-0 Saturday night with a 46-yard touchdown scramble before anyone could blink an eye.

“Some of those guys get out and hear the crowd, and they let it bother them a lot, and that happens if you’re not used to it,” Taggart said. “They played Tennessee last year and … one crowd isn’t going to make you used to it. But we still could have played a lot better no matter what the crowd was doing.”

The Toppers eventually found a rhythm, scoring their 10 points on drives of 67 yards and 80 yards.

Even Rainey gained steam as the game went on. After rushing for just 54 yards on 15 carries in the first half, the junior collected 101 yards on the same number of attempts in the second.

“All of the positives came from the second half,” Rainey said. “That’s when we calmed down really. If we start out like that and end like that, we’ll be okay.”

WKU will have to piece an entire game together if its wants to challenge Kentucky in Lexington on Sept. 11 — where the Toppers’ 21-game losing streak began two years ago.

Martinez, shining in his Nebraska debut, introduced himself to the Lincoln crowd by digging a hole for the Toppers – a hole that Taggart said they can’t afford as they move forward.

“That hurt,” Taggart said. “It hurt a lot. We knew we had to make them earn anything they got, and we didn’t do that. We gave up big plays, and you can’t do that against a team like this.

“We’re going to be fine. We’re going to win some ballgames – no concerns about that.”

Rainey said after the game that his career-high 155 rushing yards meant nothing to him – that all they represented was another notch on the nation’s longest losing streak.

But Rainey also said he doesn’t want anyone comparing the current team to the one that went 0-12 last season.

WKU folded with the lead numerous times in the fourth quarter last year, but if the Toppers find themselves in a similar situation this season, Rainey said they plan on closing out the win.

“We’re a totally different team (than last year),” he said. “The outcome didn’t show it, but we’ve just got to eliminate the mistakes that we made. We’re nothing like last year, and the future will show it.”