WKU-ULL postgame thoughts

24 10 2010

Give credit to Western Kentucky inside linebacker Chris Bullard for being a bit of a fortune teller.

While most of his teammates and coaches were just focused on getting a win earlier this season, Bullard told me following a loss to Florida International two weeks ago that not only was it time for WKU to snap this skid – but it was also time for the Hilltoppers to ‘dominate somebody.’

Strong words for a program that had just lost its 25th straight game – but I’ll give credit where it’s due, Bullard called it.

The Hilltoppers absolutely owned this football game from start to finish. There was one moment early in the third quarter at Cajun Field where it looked like a bit of deja vu might take place, as ULL scored a touchdown on its opening drive of the second half to make it 27-14 – but rather than panic, quarterback Kawaun Jakes gathered the offense and put them on a six-play, 70-yard drive minutes later that he polished off with a one-yard touchdown run.

From there, you could just sense that this one was over. ULL was beaten, and every ounce of frustration from those 26 straight losses came pouring out from behind the WKU sideline.

I’ve covered 24 of those 26 straight losses in person over the past two years. I remember the first one – an absolute manhandling at the hands of Kentucky in Lexington in 2008. The lasting memory following that game was one of panic, as then coach David Elson and quarterback K.J. Black butted heads – leading to Black abruptly quitting the team, and beginning a downward spiral that would feature more than 700 days of frustration and eventually Elson’s firing.

The Hilltoppers lost a football game in literally every single way a team could possibly lose – trust me, I saw it all. They were routed, they lost on last-minute field goals, blew huge fourth-quarter leads (twice) and even managed to lose by three scores in a game where they scored 49 points.

It actually got pretty tough to write about, as 26 straight defeats don’t offer many storylines outside of the obvious (the said 26 straight defeats).

There were plenty of images that will live forever during what will no doubt be remembered as the darkest period in WKU football history – and maybe one of the darkest periods in the history of WKU athletics (regardless of sport). And it’s only one win, the group’s not out of the woods yet by any means.

But on Saturday, the lasting image was one of Willie Taggart walking toward the locker room following the win with his trademark grin in full effect – with one arm around Jakes, and mascot Big Red attached to his side.

Don’t call him a savior just yet, but arguably the best player ever to wear a WKU uniform took one giant step toward starting an entirely new legacy for himself at his alma mater on Saturday.

As for the game itself, let’s take a look:

– Jakes in control

Two weeks after getting publicly criticized for Taggart for a performance that saw him miss throw after throw after throw – Kawaun Jakes looked like an old pro Saturday.

Jakes was completely in control from start to finish, going 18 of 22 for 263 yards and a passing touchdown.

For the first time this season – and maybe for the first time since his first career start at Navy in 2009 – Jakes played loose and aggressive. The tell-tale moment coming two plays into the game, where he pulled the ball down and sprinted up field for a 17-yard pickup. Two weeks ago, rather than running and taking what the defense gave him, Jakes likely would have forced the ball into coverage or thrown awkwardly on the run, missing the target all together.

But on Saturday, he was on the money. Outside of one throw intended for Jack Doyle midway through the game, I can’t recall a throw that wasn’t on target.

He had four incompletions, and one of them was a desperation heave just before Casey Tinius’ field goal at the end of the second quarter. He found receivers in space and allowed them to run after the catch, when he audibled at the line, it was almost always the right decision, and he kept the team together in the huddle. WKU didn’t look rushed, it didn’t look frazzled – it looked in control offensively all day long.

And much of that credit goes to the quarterback.

Jakes was so good in fact that I received a text midway through the game asking me if Willie Taggart himself had stepped onto the field and put on a uniform before the game. Obviously he didn’t, but for one day anyway, Kawaun Jakes did his best Willie Taggart impression on the field – and it led to a pretty historic victory.

Vasquez and McNeal growing up

First Marcus Vasquez.

This guy finally looks like a wide receiver.

His routes are crisp, his body is in control and he’s catching everything.

Vasquez found gaps in zones, made plays after the catch, made the routine grabs and the difficult ones Saturday. The former quarterback who was applauded by Taggart for ‘growing up and cutting off his dreadlocks’ earlier this year is indeed turning into a No. 1 college receiver.

Jakes caught every pass that was thrown his way Saturday – the only one he didn’t corral was a toss in the endzone that was eventually flagged for pass interference. On top of that, he made those eight grabs for 76 yards against ULL’s Bill Bentley – one of the best corners in the Sun Belt.

His performance also helped out McNeal – who was able to take advantage of situations where Bentley and the defense focused on Vasquez. McNeal found ways to get open over the middle of the field, and like Vasquez, he didn’t drop anything. Taggart criticized McNeal for dropping a pass in the endzone at the end of the FIU game two weeks ago – Saturday, McNeal didn’t allow that topic to come up.

Combined with tight end Jack Doyle – and the emergence of freshman backup Demetrius Coley – the Hilltoppers all of a sudden find themselves with at least four players that are more than capable of breaking a game open in the passing game. And none of them are older than a sophomore.

Of all the major playmakers on the WKU offense, not one of them is a senior. WKU got contributions from true freshmen Donald Campbell and Antiono Andrews. McNeal’s a freshman, Coley’s a freshman, Doyle and Vasquez are sophomores – and so is Jakes. The ‘old man’ of the group is actually Rainey, who himself is only a junior.

Funny how a victory changes the outlook on things like that.

Defensive dominance

When it rains it pours, and it did just that Saturday.

It started with defensive end Quanterus Smith – who was unblockable all afternoon – sacking ULL quarterback Chris Masson, forcing a fumble that fell right into the arms of defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen. Allen then rumbled 69 yards for a touchdown.

Smith dominated the line of scrimmage during the entire first half, spending quite a bit of time in the offensive backfield – on one play, he literally ran untouched around ULL left tackle Colin Windsor, finding his way into Masson’s face before Windsor even made it out of his stance.

In the second half, WKU continued to harass Masson with blitzes from linebackers and defensive backs – eventually breaking through when junior Derrius Brooks ran right into an errant throw before showing folks why he’s a former track and field sprinting champion on a 62-yard return for a score.

Arius Wright got into the action with a pick late in the game.

In total, the WKU defense had several hurries on Masson, collected five tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

A breakout performance indeed.

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