In their first season as a full fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the WKU Hilltoppers had arguably the worst season in team history losing all 12 games and their head coach in the process. The following season the team showed signs of improvement going under first year head coach Willie Taggart 2-10 and winning two conference games and losing four of their other six conference games by a touchdown or less. Heading into the 2011 season, things were looking up for the team; however, once the season began, it could not have been any worse. Heading into their first conference game, the team was 0-3 including huge losses to Navy and Indiana State of the FCS. What a difference eight games make.
After dropping their conference opener to Arkansas State in the final minute, the Tops rattled off five straight conference wins to move them to 5-4 on the season. Last week their win streak came to a halt when they were beat by the number-one ranked LSU Tigers 42-9. Despite the loss WKU felt like they gave LSU all they wanted as they were only down 21-9 halfway through the third quarter before the Tigers pulled away. At 5-5 on the season, WKU entered their game with the Mean Green of North Texas just one win away from being bowl eligible.
In a game that saw junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes throw for over 200 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions and senior running back Bobby Rainey rush for over 200 yards and a score as well as catch four passes for 48 yards and another score, the Tops left Denton, Texas with a 31-21 win, the team's first win ever against North Texas, a top two finish in the conference standings, and most importantly bowl eligibility.
"Considering where we have been as a program as of late, I'm so proud of these guys - especially our seniors," said Taggart. "I'm also so happy for our fans. They've been a big part of this, and now they get to enjoy it too. We played really well on both sides ball. We've said all week that these last two games we are going to go out and play well for our seniors, and that started tonight."
The keys to victory for WKU on this evening were 1) offensive balance, 2) controlling the tempo, and 3) executing when it mattered.
The first key to the Tops' victory was offensive balance. While the offense has shown signs of huge improvement during the past eight games, they have relied heavily on Rainey and junior tight end Jack Doyle to move the offense up and down the field. While Rainey accounted for 262 yards and two scores and Doyle caught nine passes for 89 yards, they were not the only WKU players who helped out the offense.
Kawaun Jakes had arguably the best game of his college career completing 19-29 passes for 231 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. With his performance Jakes has now completed 55% of his passes this season compared to just 51% last season and his passer rating has increased seven points from last season. While his rushing numbers are down, he has affirmed himself as the man for the job. Jakes was also helped by the play of his receivers. To go along with Doyle's 89 yards and Rainey's 48, receivers Tyler Higbee and Rico Brown, tight end Mitchell Henry, and running backs Antonio Andrews and Kadeem Jones combined for six catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Higbee's catch was his first of his career, which also was his first touchdown reception of his career as he and Jakes connected on a 63-yard score late in the second quarter.
The second key to victory for the Tops was their ability to control the tempo. Heading into the game both WKU and North Texas were ranked in the top 11 in the country in time of possession. When the game ended, the Tops had the ball for a staggering 39:45 as opposed to the Mean Green's 20:15. One of the tings that contributed to that wide margin was the teams' ability to convert third downs. North Texas converted just three times on nine third down attempts as opposed to WKU's nine conversions on 16 attempts.
The turnover margin also had a lot to do with the discrepancy. Coming into the game, the Mean Green had a +7 turnover margin as opposed to the Tops' -7 turnover margin. WKU won the turnover battle forcing two North Texas interceptions and committing no turnovers.
The final key to success for the Tops on the evening was execution. To go along with the high third down conversion rate and no turnovers, the Tops also scored touchdowns on all of their red zone opportunities and held the Mean Green star running back Lance Dunbar out of the end zone on a goal line stand. One of the areas that struggled execution wise for WKU was the kicking game. That was not a problem on the evening as senior kicker Casey Tinius connected on all five extra points and field goal opportunities including a season long 42 yard field goal on the team's opening drive.
With his 37 carries for 214 yards, Rainey has moved into first place in the nation in rushing yards with 1468 yards on the season on a nation's leading 326 carries. Rainey has just a two yard advantage on Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. Ball may have an advantage as the Badgers could play 14 games this season if they are able to be Penn State and make it to the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
With just one game remaining, the Tops are bowl eligible and can finish no worse than tied for second in the conference. Despite the 6-5 record, the team needs a big win against Troy next Saturday to solidify their bowl position. Taggart made that apparent in his comments following the performance.
"Six wins feels good, but I guarantee seven will feel even better, and we get a chance to go out and do that at home next week. We need all of Hilltopper Nation to pack Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday against Troy."