The WKU football team faced questions this week about whether they could focus on Saturday night's opponent following the jubilation of their win last week against Kentucky. The answer to those questions would be a resounding "yes."
The Hilltoppers dominated from start to finish against visiting Southern Mississippi, winning 42-17 in front of a record attendance at L.T. Smith stadium of 23,252. WKU led 21-3 at the half, and coach Willie Taggart pulled most of his starters with a few minutes left in the third quarter.
Here's more from Saturday night's release by the WKU athletics department:
The Western Kentucky University football team improved to 3-1 on the season Saturday night, rushing for 369 yards in a 42-17 victory over Southern Miss at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. A stadium-record crowd of 23,252 saw the victory in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. That bested the previous record attendance of 22,297 against Murray State on Sept. 20, 2008 in the first game after the stadium was renovated.
The duo of Antonio Andrews and Leon Allen led the rushing attack, finishing with career-high totals of 136 and 132 yards respectively. It marked the 28th time in school history that WKU has produced two 100-yard rushers in a game, and the first since David Wolke and Tyrell Hayden did so at North Texas on Nov. 1, 2008. The team rushing total was also the most by a Hilltopper squad since picking up 373 yards against North Carolina Central on Nov. 27, 2007.
“We were hitting on all cylinders tonight, and our guys drew strength from this crowd. This was a big-time college football atmosphere tonight,” said head coach Willie Taggart. “Our offensive line and fullbacks were really physical and set the tone early for our running game.”
The Hilltopper offense wasted little time getting the record crowd excited, driving 71 yards in nine plays on the opening drive of the game. Back-to-back pass plays — a 16 yard completion from Kawaun Jakes to Jack Doyle, followed by a 34-yard completion to Andrews moved WKU down to the three yard line. Two plays later, Allen found the end zone from a yard out to give the Toppers a 7-0 lead just over five minutes into the game.
After WKU forced a quick three-and-out, the offense went back to work, needing just five plays to cover 66 yards for another score. After a pass interference call set up the Hilltoppers at the 25, Jakes connected with a wide open Andrews on a touchdown pass to make it a 14-0 score with 5:52 to go in the opening quarter.
The Golden Eagles were able drive into WKU territory twice in the second quarter, but feel short on the first trip as Corey Acosta missed a field-goal attempt wide right from the 38 yards. However, Acosta was able to redeem himself on the next Southern Miss possession, connecting from 47 yards to get the Eagles on the board and cut the Hilltopper lead to 14-3 with 6:38 remaining before intermission.
The Hilltoppers responded quickly, however, driving 68 yards in just six plays to find pay dirt for the first time in the quarter. Jakes completed three straight passes on the drive, including a 36-yard scoring strike to Willie McNeal, stretching the lead to 21-3 with 3:13 remaining before halftime. After stops by both teams, WKU got the ball back with just under a minute to play, and Kadeem Jones was able to break a career-long 42 yard run to get the ball inside the USM 40, but time ran out on the Hilltoppers as they took an 18-point lead into intermission.
The Hilltoppers forced Southern Miss to punt from deep in its own territory early in the third quarter, and quickly took advantage of the good field position. In fact, Andrews did all the work on a quick scoring drive, following up a seven yard gain on first down with a 36-yard scoring rush on the very next play — the longest run of his career — to give WKU a 28-3 lead with 12:41 on the third-quarter clock.
The WKU running game went back to work on its next offensive possession, this time with Allen carrying the load. The freshman broke three long runs of 20, 14 and 33 yards on consecutive carries to set up the Hilltoppers at the USM 5. Two plays later, Jakes connected with Jones on a two-yard scoring strike to stretch the lead to 35-3 midway through the period. In the third quarter alone, the Hilltoppers rushed for 208 yards on 16 carries — an average of 13 yards per rush.
The Hilltoppers were able to stretch the lead to 42-3 late in the third quarter when fullback Nick Baisch scored from one yard out on his first career rush.
The Golden Eagles found the end zone for the first time in the game late in the third when Ricky Lloyd hit Tyre Bracken on a 13-yard scoring pass with 2:03 remaining in the quarter to make it a 42-10 score. Southern Miss added another score midway through the fourth when Anthony Alford scored on a one-yard run with 7:56 left in the game to cut the WKU lead to 42-17.
Southern Miss drove down looking for one more score late, but a fumble was recovered by Arius Wright at the 15 yard line with one minute left, and the Hilltoppers were able to kneel on the ball and run out the clock.
In addition to the running totals, Jakes finished the game 12 for 18 passing for 172 yards and three touchdowns. He has now connected on seven scoring throws in two home games so far in the 2012 season. Andrews added a game-high 74 receiving yards to go along with his rushing totals, posting 211 all-purpose yards on the night.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers limited Southern Miss to just 264 yards of offense, and were able to stop the Golden Eagles seven out of 10 times on third down. Xavius Boyd again led the team in tackles with seven, and accounted for one of WKU’s eight tackles for loss on the night.
WKU hits the road next Saturday (Sept. 29), opening Sun Belt Conference play at defending league champion Arkansas State. Kickoff between the Hilltoppers and Red Wolves is slated for 6 p.m. (CDT), and the game will be available on ESPN3.
“I told our guys after the game that we had one heck of a preseason, but now it’s time for the real season with Sun Belt play starting,” said Taggart. “We have to really be locked in now and be ready to take care of business the rest of the way to reach our goal of league championship.”