What if? What if Bobby Rainey rushes for 100 yards? What if the WKU defense stops Arkansas State with less than three minutes left? What if penalties did not negate an interception for the Tops? What if they convert on fourth and one? What if the referees did not re-spot Kawaun's late pick-up?
What ifs usually do not equal wins in college football, and they did not tonight for WKU football team as they drop their conference opener 26-22 to Arkansas State. The loss marked the 18th straight home loss for the team.
"I told our guys I hurt for them," said head coach Willie Taggart. "We were right there, but the football gods weren't with us."
The Tops looked like they had put the icing on the cake with about three minutes to go. On third and short, quarterback Kawaun Jakes looked like he picked up a first down on a broken run. The original spot and measure gave WKU the first down on the Arkansas State 31.
"We thought we had the first down," said Taggart. "We thought we had got the first down, and we were going to run out the clock."
As the offense lined the ball up with 2:31 on the clock, the booth called for a review of the spot. After a long delay, the officials determined that Jakes was a yard short of the first down.
"No, [I did not agree with the re-spot]," Taggart exclaimed shaking his head, "not from where they spotted the ball. It was a great run, and we thought things were going our way, and then all of a sudden, this happens."
After Bobby Rainey was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, the Arkansas State offense drove the ball 67 yards into the Tops' end zone to give the Wolves the lead for good.
The loss marked the eighteenth straight home loss for WKU, a dubious streak that has fans on edge. While the impact of the red and white faithful was felt on the evening, fans left Houchens-Smith Stadium with deflated hopes and dejected faces.
Even with the ultimate outcome, there were some positives to take away from the game.
The biggest positive was their heart. When Arkansas State went up 19-14, the Tops could have rolled it up and said try again next week; however, they dug down deep, and played hard, which allowed them to take the lead late in the game.
Another positive was the improvement of the WKU offense. Kawaun Jakes fed off his improved play against Indiana State and made huge plays throughout the game. Jakes would finish the game 13-23 passing for 142 yards and a touchdown while gaining 60 yards on seven carries not including his two-point conversion run to give the Tops the 22-19 lead with 10:10 left to play in the game.
"He wasn't good enough," said Taggart, "we lost again. He did do some good things, but he did some bad things, too. He brought some energy to this football team [with his runs]. He did a good job with that. He had a bad interception, but he did some good things [after the interception] to get us back in the ball game. We've just got to finish."
Bobby Rainey made his presence felt in the game in more ways than expected. Not only did Rainey have 154 yards of total offense, but he connected on 17 yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dexter Haynes 2:42 remaining in the third quarter. The touchdown pass was the second of his career as he connected on a five yard touchdown pass last year against South Florida.
"We have worked on that play before," said Taggart. "We had been running that toss play, and we thought it was a great time to pull it."
Despite his all-around performance, Rainey found himself 14 yards short of breaking the school record for most consecutive 100-yard games in school history. While Rainey will tell you that the records do not mean the same as the team success, the record would have been a nice addition to his resume while at WKU.
The biggest area that hurt the Tops on the evening was the defensive secondary. While Arkansas State was held to just 25 yards rushing on 28 carries, Red Wolves' quarterback Ryan Aplin torched the WKU defense for 396 yards passing on 37-49 passing. Aplin also made his presence felt on the receiving end when he caught a pass from wide receiver Dwayne Frampton for a 23 yard touchdown to tie the game in the second quarter.
"[The secondary didn't play] well enough," stated Taggart. "We gave up 300-something yards passing so we didn't play well enough to stop what they were doing. When you give up [that many yards], it's not good enough."
The Tops must quickly put this loss behind them as they travel to Murfreesboro Thursday, Oct. 6 to face the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State in front of a national TV audience. Despite their 0-4 start, no one should count out the Tops as they have proved they are capable of picking up conference wins on the road.