UK Football

Mark Story: Players persuaded WKU's Taggart to call trick play

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers quarterback Kawaun Jakes (6) scores in overtime to win the game at Commonwealth Stadium Sept. 15, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers quarterback Kawaun Jakes (6) scores in overtime to win the game at Commonwealth Stadium Sept. 15, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

In the week before Western Kentucky University traveled to Lexington to face Kentucky, WKU Coach Willie Taggart installed a new play.

It involved WKU quarterback Kawaun Jakes throwing a lateral to tailback Antonio Andrews as if it was going to be a flanker screen. Then Andrews, who won Kentucky Mr. Football honors as a quarterback at Fort Campbell High School, would throw it back to Jakes in the opposite flank.

"When I was here before as an assistant, we ran that (play) a lot," Taggart said. "And it worked a lot."

As Western seemed first on the verge of scoring perhaps the biggest win in school history with an upset of Kentucky, then close to losing in the most heartbreaking manner possible, the Hilltoppers players kept pleading with their coach.

Said Taggart: "The entire game, our guys were saying, 'Coach, call the play! Coach, call the play!"

So it was after Andrews scored on a 2-yard touchdown run in overtime to pull Western within 31-30 of UK, Taggart finally relented on a game-deciding two-point conversion try.

"At the end, I said, 'Well, I'm going to run the play,'" the WKU coach said. "'You all make this happen."

Boy, did Western do that.

Recording perhaps the greatest win in WKU football history, Andrews took a lateral from Jakes in the right flat. He threw it back across the field to the quarterback on the opposite side of the field. Jakes slid into the left corner of the end zone to create Hilltopper heaven.

Before a stunned Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 53,980, Western beat Kentucky 32-31 in overtime Saturday night.

The win was Western's first against UK in four tries, its first against a Southeastern Conference foe in 17 tries and its first win against a team from a Bowl Championship Series in 21 tries (since 2001).

As long as they play football in Bowling Green, they will talk about Taggart's two-point play call. Maybe they'll even come up with a name for the play.

What was a gut-punch to Joker Phillips and his hold on the head coaching job at UK was an epoch moment for Western, a school that just began the transition to the FBS in 2007 and did not become a full-fledged member of college football's highest level until 2009.

Before Saturday, WKU's victory over McNeese State for the 2002 Division I-AA national title game was the Hilltoppers' greatest football moment.

Is beating UK — THE state school — bigger than that?

"Certainly, a landmark win," said Western Athletics Director Todd Stewart. "I think you'd have to say (beating UK) or the game where we won the national championship."

Taggart was more definite. "Tonight was the biggest win in our history," he said. "It's huge! It's huge!"

For Taggart, once a gifted WKU scrambling quarterback, this was a cherry on the top of a remarkable rebuilding job.

When Taggart came to Western from his place as an assistant to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford before the 2010 season, WKU was mired in a 20-game losing streak. Under Taggart, the Hilltoppers lost their first six and finished 2-10 in 2010. Included in that was a 63-28 pasting to Kentucky and its first-year head coach, Phillips.

Last season, Western lost its first four games. But starting with a 36-33 double-overtime victory at Middle Tennessee, Taggart got the Western ship to turn. After beating UK, WKU has won nine of its last 11 games — and the only losses were at No. 1 LSU (2011) and No. 1 Alabama (last week).

Against Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference, the Sun Belt Conference's Western appeared for most of the game to be the more physical team along both lines of scrimmage.

With Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith uncharacteristically inaccurate early, Western picked off three first-half passes. When Jakes hit Willie McNeal with a 13-yard TD pass on a slant with 8:02 left in the third period, WKU led 24-10.

Kentucky, to its credit, kept fighting.

The Cats finally tied the game with 24 seconds left on a 22-yard Smith scoring pass to DeMarcus Sweat. When Jonathan George ripped off an 11-yard scoring run on Kentucky's first possession in overtime, the Cats were on the verge of staving off a horrid defeat.

But Western did not fold. Andrews' TD run in OT set up Taggart's gamble and what became a momentous moment in WKU sports history,

So what do the Toppers call that "throwback to the quarterback" play?

Said Jakes: "The play that beat UK. The play that beat UK. That's what we call it now."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader