All the drama lately must have “Big Red,” Western Kentucky’s furry, round, Cookie Monster-like mascot, exhausted.
Since starting the season with four straight losses, Western Kentucky football has put together its first five-game winning streak in seven seasons.
The first win during the streak came on a double-overtime touchdown pass. The last two were decided by game-ending field goals.
“It’s huge for the program, especially the seniors with all we’ve been through,” Bobby Rainey, an All-Sun Belt Conference running back, said. “Right now, we just want to make sure we continue on and finish the way we want to finish.”
WKU’s recent surge has the Hilltoppers within one-half game of Louisiana-Lafayette for second place behind Arkansas State in the Sun Belt standings.
The Hilltoppers, one win from becoming bowl eligible, take a “break” from conference action Saturday night when they face No. 1 LSU as a 41.5-point underdog.
“That is a minor league NFL team we are playing this week,” WKU coach Willie Taggart said. “It is a great opportunity for our program and for our guys to go up and see how far we are from being the No. 1 team in the country.”
About the only blessing is they get the Tigers on the heels of their 9-6 overtime thriller at Alabama, the only game LSU has played decided by single digits.
“We are not going to stand a chance if we go in not believing or believe what everyone else says about it,” Taggart said. “We have to go out and not worry about the media and our family members telling us, ?Hope you will be OK. I hope you guys get out of there.’”
No matter how WKU’s first game against the nation’s No. 1 plays out, the Hilltoppers know they will have much to play for when the back end of their schedule resumes.
An erstwhile power in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks, WKU completed its transition into the Football Championship Subdivision in 2009, going 0-12 that first year.
Enter Taggart, seemingly the perfect fit.
Taggart starred at quarterback for WKU from 1995-98, setting 11 school records during his career. He is one of only four former players to have their jersey retired.
An assistant at WKU from 1999-2006, Taggart returned to Bowling Green, Ky., after three seasons at Stanford, where he helped groom 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart.
WKU won only twice last year, but Taggart has the Hilltoppers back on top in his second season.
“Coach Taggart is the one who gets us going,” Rainey said. “He has so much energy, and he makes sure the coaches have it and the players also. We basically look up to him. He’s the person we rely on to get us motivated.”
Taggart’s love for WKU is as infectious as his energy.
When he leads the Hilltoppers onto the field before games, he waves the red towel that has long been synonymous with WKU athletics. The red towel originated with legendary basketball coach EA Diddle, who carried one on the sideline much of his career.
Taggart will surely wave the towel Saturday when the Hilltoppers venture into Death Valley for what promises to be an uphill challenge.
Somewhere in the stadium, Big Red will smile and bounce.
“We know what we’re up against when we’re playing the big schools,” Rainey said. “We won’t back down. We know they’re a great team and have a great defense, but we know what we have to do.”