WKU vs FAU: Taggart returns to town, WKU looks for 11th straight senior day victory

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Jacob Latimer

WKU Hilltoppers sophomore defensive backs Kahlef Hailassie (12) and Beanie Bishop (21) celebrate after returning it to the house during the MTSU game.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU hosts the Florida Atlantic Owls Saturday afternoon in the Hilltoppers’ final home game of the regular season. There are a couple of things to keep in mind that might affect the outcome of Saturday’s senior day clash.

Willie Taggart’s return to Bowling Green

Willie Taggart came back to WKU in 2010 after the program wrapped up its first two FBS seasons with a 2-22 record. He coached WKU from 2010 to 2012, leading the school to its first two winning seasons in FBS play. He left the Hill in 2013 for the head coaching job at the University of South Florida. 

He spent four years at USF, turning the program around in a short period of time. He compiled a 6-18 record across his first two seasons with the Bulls before his last two years resulted in a 18-7 record, two bowl appearances and a bowl win. 

The first time Taggart coached against his alma mater was the 2015 Miami Beach Bowl, losing to the Hilltoppers 45-35 after a 28-point third quarter outburst from the WKU offense. Taggart left the Bulls the following season and spent three years at Power Five programs Oregon and Florida State. 

He took the Florida Atlantic job opening in 2020 after former Owls head coach Lane Kiffin left for the vacant Ole Miss job. His second matchup with WKU ended better than the first, holding the Hilltoppers to a measly six points of offense in a 10-6 win on November 7, 2020. 

Taggart has led his team to a 5-5 record in 2021, losing its last two games by two possessions each. The Owls have one of the better rushing attacks in C-USA, fourth in both yards per game and yards per carry. Much like WKU’s Bailey Zappe, Taggart also has a graduate transfer of his own under center in N’Kosi Perry. 

Perry has been on a downward slope the last three games, completing 53% of his passes and never surpassing more than 200 yards a game in that stretch. If Taggart wants to continue his winning ways against his former school, No. 7 has to perform better.    

Senior day, Conference USA East on the line 

The Hilltoppers have been remarkable in senior day games, winning their last 10, a streak that was ironically started by Taggart. The average margin of victory across WKU’s previous decade of senior day victories is a staggering 17.3 points per game. Their last senior day defeat came in 2010 against MTSU as part of a 27-26 comeback loss.

The closest matchup the Hilltoppers saw during this stretch was a triple overtime barn-burner in 2017 against MTSU. WKU led the entire game until the first overtime. WKU kicker Ryan Nuss made a 37-yard field goal to win the game against the Blue Raiders.

FAU claims a win streak of its own, winning the last four matchups against WKU. In 2020, Javion Posey rushed for an 11-yard game-winning touchdown with 2:27 left on the clock. That was the only game across the last four meetings to end as a one-score affair. FAU has beaten the Hilltoppers by an average of 12 points during this stretch. 

Despite a shaky recent resume against the Owls, WKU has a legitimate shot at clinching its spot in the C-USA Championship with a win this weekend. 

WKU clinches the C-USA East Division with a win against FAU and a Marshall loss. Marshall goes up against the Charlotte 49ers on their senior night, the 49ers’ 100th game as a football program. 

A WKU loss and a Marshall win or a loss from both programs sets up next weekend’s game in Huntington, West Virginia to be a winner-take-all affair. But for now, the Hilltoppers are locked in on FAU. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. CT on Saturday.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.