WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | Sports

Kentucky, Western Kentucky on different levels in football

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart has
spent the majority of his adult life playing and coaching football
in Kentucky's shadow.
The 34-year-old first-year head coach is smart enough to
understand the dynamic. Kentucky and Louisville have a history of
success at college football's highest level. WKU, not so much.
The Hilltoppers have endured a bumpy transition from the
Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
They haven't won in nearly two years - a 21-game skid - heading
into Saturday's game against the Wildcats (1-0).
Taggart knows Kentuck will be heavy favorites. That's what "big
brother" is supposed to be. That doesn't mean the Hilltoppers
(0-1) will be intimidated.
"Little brother can grow up and end up beating big brother,"
Taggart said with a laugh.
Maybe, but no team outside of the Southeastern Conference has
been able to knock off the Wildcats for four years. Kentucky has
ripped off 16 straight non-conference wins dating back to 2006.
The perfect run, which included a 23-16 victory over Louisville
last Saturday, has powered the program to four straight bowl games
for the first time in school history.
Though the majority of the victories have come against teams
from lesser conferences, coach Joker Phillips is hardly apologetic.
He is well aware of how fragile his team's margin for error is
before heading into the teeth of the Southeastern Conference.
"For us to have a good season, you have to win those
non-conference games," Phillips said. "To have a really great
season, you have to knock some teams off after that. It starts
here, though."
One slip up and all momentum is gone. For proof Phillips points
to Mississippi, which was upset by Jacksonville State last weekend.
"If you don't play well, if we play like we did in the third
and fourth quarter (against Louisville), anybody can beat you," he
said.
But the Hilltoppers haven't beaten anybody in nearly two years.
Their 21-game losing streak is the longest active slide in the
country, including a 49-10 loss at Nebraska last weekend.
Yet Taggart saw signs of progress. Running back Bobby Rainey
posted a career-high 155 yards against one of the nation's toughest
defenses. Though things got ugly early, they didn't get out of hand
late.
"We showed some flashes that we can play at this level,"
Taggart said. "We've just got to be consistent."
It's a phrase echoed by more than one Wildcat after posting
their fourth consecutive win in the Governor's Cup. Kentucky
dominated the first half but struggled to put the Cardinals away.
Louisville hung around until the end, helped in part by 11
Kentucky penalties and a couple of squandered opportunities deep in
Louisville territory.
With just two weeks to iron things out before traveling to No. 8
Florida, the Wildcats are searching for some urgency.
"Joker talked about stepping on other team's necks," said
linebacker Danny Trevathan. "While you're ahead, just go ahead and
shut the lights off."
The Hilltoppers will try to keep the light on as long as
possible. Doing it will likely require heavy doses of Rainey. The
5-foot-8 junior carried the ball 30 times against Nebraska,
including a 40-yard burst.
Rainey put up 99 yards versus Kentucky two years ago, and
considers himself a more polished back now. He'll be facing a
defense that gave up 153 yards to Louisville's Bilal Powell and had
trouble keeping the Cardinals off the field.
WKU safety Ryan Beard called Rainey "little but mighty."
It's a motto the Hilltoppers would like to follow.
Phillips has joked that the game is a de facto state
championship. In a season with lofty expectations, before the
Wildcats can move forward in the SEC they have to prove they're
tops in the Bluegrass.
"This is important for recruiting, it's another chance to
showcase our program," he said.


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