Against all odds, Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart came into Tiger Stadium on Saturday night thinking his team could beat LSU. For 38 minutes, his Hilltoppers rewarded his faith.
Midway through the third quarter, the Sun Belt Conference team was 1 yard away from pulling within 7 points of No. 1-ranked LSU. For a 41-point underdog, it’s hard to ask for more.
“We were coming in believing we could win,” Taggart said. “We score there, I think it gives our guys a little more confidence and feel good to be down seven points in the third quarter. We get that touchdown, I think we get momentum on our side and things would be a little bit different. But we didn’t.”
Indeed, when LSU linebackers Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow combined to stuff fullback Kadeem Jones for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1, it was the beginning of an a momentum avalanche that turned a 21-7 score into a 42-9 LSU victory.
Although the Hilltoppers (5-5) got a safety three plays later when defensive end Bo Adebayo forced LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson into an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone, the Tigers forced a turnover and produced touchdowns on their next three possessions to blow the game open.
“I was believing we could win, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen unless we played a perfect ballgame,” Taggart said.
“We came in saying we wanted to get two first downs every possession offensively. If we get two first downs and end with a kick, we’re playing a field-position ballgame with these guys, and first half, we did that.”
That strategy began nearly perfectly, as Western Kentucky had multiple first downs on four of its five possessions, drove 65 yards for a touchdown the second time it had the ball and entered halftime with a 20:01 to 9:59 advantage in time of possession. The Hilltoppers finished the game with a 35:55 to 24:05 edge.
WKU pecked away with runs by Bobby Rainey (28 carries, 85 yards for the game) and throwing underneath the Tiger secondary to tight end Jack Doyle, who caught five passes for 44 yards, all in the first, including a 14-yard grab at the LSU 2 that set up Keshawn Simpson’s 2-yard touchdown run with 1:26 left in the first quarter.
“We usually play to our potential when we play bigger opponents, and that’s what happened,” Rainey said. “We had a lot of confidence coming into it, and starting out the first half, it showed.”
The Hilltoppers also stacked their defense to stop LSU’s running game, asking its secondary to hang with Tiger receivers with little help. That high-risk strategy surrendered a 59-yard touchdown pass from Jefferson to Rueben Randle, but limited Jefferson to 80 yards on five other first-half completions.
“I started looking at the quarterback and took my eyes off the man,” cornerback Derrius Brooks said of the Randle score.
But after Kenny Hilliard capped LSU’s first possession of the third quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run, WKU had big plays of its own. Antonio Andrews returned the ensuing kickoff 73 yards to the Tiger 26, receiver Boe Brand gained 17 yards on a reverse, and Rainey ran 7 yards to give the Hilltoppers a second-and-goal at the LSU 2.
Rainey, who came into the game as the nation’s fourth-leading rusher, averaging 129.9 yards per game, was taken out, and two Jones runs and an incomplete pass from Kawaun Jakes (11-24-1, 97 yards) left WKU empty on its big opportunity.
“I was wondering the same thing: Why did I come out?” Rainey said. “But that’s what it was. Coach called for a bigger package to get in the end zone.
“When we get down in the red zone, we’ve got to capitalize. We’ve got to get some type of points out of the deal.”
Thereafter, LSU’s superior depth asserted itself. That was especially evident when Alfred Blue, who had no first-half carries, started gashing the Hilltopper defense. Blue gained double-digit yardage on his first four carries and finished with 119 yard and two touchdowns on nine carries.
“I think that had a big part in it, because when they bring a guy in, it’s not different but the number,” Taggart said. “They still have the same ability athletically. I would say it had a factor in the game, but there were too many mistakes. We turned the ball over, and when you turn the ball over against a team like that and they score, they get all the momentum and go away.
“I’m upset. We lost. You only get one shot and have an opportunity like that, and we lost. From that standpoint, we’re disappointed. I’m excited our guys played hard and not give up. We scored more points than Alabama.”