By Jeremy Brown (WKU Athletic Communications)
What a difference a year makes.
At this point in 2011, the WKU football team sat at 0-4, had lost 26 of its last 28 games and was coming off a heartbreaking conference-opening loss at home to eventual Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State.
Fast forward to 2012 where the Hilltoppers sit at 4-1 heading into their open week, riding a three-game winning streak that features victories over Southeastern Conference foe Kentucky, perennial Conference USA power Southern Miss and defending conference champion Arkansas State.
Winning has become the attitude in the WKU locker room and that confidence has been built through head coach Willie Taggart and of course performing on Saturdays. But it was a Thursday night where everything changed for the Hilltoppers. One year ago on this Thursday exactly, actually.
WKU traveled to Murfreesboro to take on Sun Belt rival Middle Tennessee in a primetime contest broadcasted on ESPNU. A back-and-forth battle couldn’t be decided in regulation or in the first overtime, it took two overtimes to determine the victor. And thanks to 200-plus all-purpose yards and two touchdowns from All-American running back Bobby Rainey, including the game-winning touchdown catch, WKU notched its first win of the season.
“All I remember is the end of the game when Bobby (Rainey) was in the end zone and everybody rushed over and tackled him,” said senior offensive lineman Adam Smith. “We’ve been through some rough times here and that win was a turning point to the good times.”
Senior safety Kareem Peterson doesn’t recall much about the wild win either, but he too credits October 6, 2011 as the turning point.
“That MTSU game was definitely big,” said Peterson. “It woke us up. Now we expect to win.”
Winning is what WKU is doing. The Hilltoppers are 11-2 in their last 13 games, with their only losses coming to No.1 ranked LSU in 2011 and top-ranked Alabama back on September 8. The only teams with more consecutive conference victories than WKU’s eight are TCU (27), LSU (10), Georgia (10) and Houston (9).
Smith attributes the winning ways to maturity and confidence.
“It’s been great to see everyone grow up, the way the leaders have been leading and the way the young guys have stepped up,” said Smith.
It’s been a full calendar year since WKU has dropped a game to an opponent not ranked No.1 in the country. They’ve won 11 games in that span and there’s not one area to pinpoint for the success. It’s been a balanced attack. Running, passing, defensive dominance and creating turnovers, all of the variables of winning football have been at play for the Hilltoppers.
In the 11 wins WKU’s ground-and-pound style has been in full force, rushing for 2,524 yards (229.5 YPG), including over 200 yards on seven occasions.
Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes has shed the “game manager” label and become a vital playmaker, tossing 15 touchdowns compared to five interceptions during the winning-stretch. The Jakes-led offense has scored 30 or more points in nine of the 11 wins, including 91 in the Hilltoppers’ two home contests in 2012.
Second-year defensive coordinator Lance Guidry has developed one of the top defenses in the country during is short time on the Hill. As a unit the Hilltopper defense ranks top 20 in four different categories, including total defense (14th), passing defense (16th), tackles for loss (18th) and sacks per game (18th).
Individually sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling leads the country in interceptions and senior defensive end Quanterus Smith does the same in sacks per game.
During the 11 wins, the Hilltopper defense has held opponents under 20 points six times, including a 20-0 shutout against FAU following the streak-sparking win over Middle Tennessee. Winning the turnover battle typically results in winning the game, and WKU has forced 21 during the stretch.
“We’re executing and playing fast,” said Peterson. “Sometimes things don’t go right but if you play fast and execute that’s how you end up at the top.”
Confidence is at an all-time high in the Hilltopper locker room, but Smith knows that only five of 12 games have been played this season, and a difficult road lies ahead.
“After starting slow last week at Arkansas State we realize that we have to start fast if we are going to accomplish our goals,” said Smith. “We can’t play like we did in that first half. We have to keep playing and believing in each other. I don’t think anybody can stop us if we play Hilltopper football.”
The contagious confidence, the expectation to win and the hard-working demeanor surrounding WKU is a product of Taggart’s coaching, according to Smith. He calls his head coach unbelievable and loves how his teammates have bought into Taggart’s style and play their hearts out for him every week.
It’s that winning mentality that didn’t have Peterson breaking a sweat despite being down 13-0 in the defending champions’ house last weekend.
“We go into games knowing we are going to win. When we were down last week there wasn’t any pressure,” said Peterson. “Coach Taggart said what he had to say and he didn’t have to say any more. We took care of business.”
WKU has taken care of business up until this point, but Peterson notes that there’s still plenty of winning WKU needs to do.
“We’re not comfortable with 4-1,” said Peterson. “We’re not satisfied with a couple of wins. Winning is what we do now. We want to finish 12-1.”