Willie Taggart

Taggart lands a raise from WKU


Playing in just its fourth season at the Div. 1-A level, Western Kentucky earns seven wins in 2011 and should’ve qualified for its first bowl game in the program’s history.

As a result of that turnaround from a two-win season in 2010, though, the man who will lead the Hilltoppers into the offseason will do so armed with a new deal.

In a release, WKU announced that head coach Willie Taggart has agreed to a new four-year contract with the school.  The release states that the contract begins on January 1, 2012, and includes an automatic one-year rollover on December 31 of each year through 2019.

Taggart’s annual salary will more than double under the new deal, going from $225,000 in 2011 to $475,000 in 2012.  Additionally, the budget for Taggart’s assistant coaches will increase by 20 percent.

“This is a much deserved new contract for Coach Taggart, and we are pleased to demonstrate this level of commitment to him and the entire WKU football program,” athletic director Ross Bjork said.  “Our second place finish in the Sun Belt Conference and 7-1 league record illustrates perfectly the significant impact Willie has had on our program since taking over just two seasons ago.  We successfully competed on a consistent basis following our bye week in September, which is a tremendous credit to our entire coaching staff and players.  In addition to helping our players develop and succeed on the field, Coach Taggart cares deeply about his players as both students and people.  All 12 of our seniors are on schedule to graduate this year, and our 959 APR ranks second in the conference.  We also have had the conference’s top-rated recruiting class each of the last two seasons.  Quite simply, every aspect of our program has improved under his watch and we are excited about the future.”

“I sincerely appreciate the commitment made by Dr. Ransdell, Ross and the WKU administration,” Taggart said.  “I am very humbled by this show of support, and I will earn every bit of it.  As I often say, ‘WKU is in my DNA’ and this is where I want to be.  We had a very good season this year in many respects, and I would like to thank my coaching staff and our players for their hard work, dedication and sacrifices to the cause.  While we made great strides this year in many areas, we still have work to do to continue this program’s rise to achieving national respect.  We need to perform better in non-conference games, and we need to fill Houchens-Smith Stadium on a consistent basis.  Our program and the Hilltopper Nation can achieve anything we desire.  We are looking forward to signing another strong recruiting class and beginning preparations for the 2012 season, and spring practice begins in just over three months.  Go Tops!”

WKU was 2-22 in the two seasons prior to Taggart’s arrival; in the past two years, the Hilltoppers have compiled a 9-15 record, including a 7-5 mark this year.

Arkansas State claims fourth SBC title in five years

Blake Anderson
Associated Press
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There might not be a more impressive Group of Five football program than Arkansas State right now.

The Red Wolves have had five different head coaches since 2010.  This season under Blake Anderson is the first that’s seen the same head coach in back-to-back seasons since 2009-10, with Hugh Freeze (2011), Gus Malzahn (2012) moving on to positions at Power Five schools and Bryan Harsin (2013) taking the job at his alma mater Boise State in that span.

But the most impressive facet of the program?  The success amidst all of the change.

Thanks to ASU’s 52-28 win over New Mexico State, the Red Wolves pushed their 2015 record to 8-3 overall and 7-0 in league play and landed them another Sun Belt Conference trophy.  Appalachian State (6-1 in conference play) had a slight chance at its first outright SBC championship, but they would’ve needed two wins combined with two ASU losses to close out the season.  The Mountaineers could still claim a co-championship with a win next week and a Red Wolves loss, while the latter would claim it outright with a win.

Regardless it’s the first title for Anderson, but the program’s fourth in the past five seasons — three outright, one shared — with all four coming with a different head coach on the sidelines.

Coach Anderson and his program won’t get the credit they deserve nationally, but they should be applauded for building upon and sustaining the foundation they’ve been given by their predecessors.

Derrick Henry carries No. 2 Alabama past Auburn, into SEC Championship

Derrick Henry
Associated Press

His team called, and he answered. It called and it called and it called again, and every time he answered. Derrick Henry rushed 46 times for 271 yards to lead No. 2 Alabama past Auburn 29-13 Saturday evening in the Iron Bowl. The win sends Alabama to the SEC Championship for the second consecutive year and fifth time under head coach Nick Saban.

After a field goal exhibition in the first half, Alabama found paydirt first on a 34-yard scoring strike from Jake Coker to ArDarius Stewart, pushing the lead to 19-6 with 5:14 remaining in the third quarter.

Auburn immediately responded when Jeremy Johnson hit Jason Smith for a Ricardo Louis-style tipped 77-yard touchdown pass.

Alabama pushed the lead back to two scores with another Griffith field goal — his fifth of the day — from 47 yards out with 10:04 remaining.

The Tide forced a punt after Griffith’s field goal, then consumed more than five minutes in a 10-play, 51-yard drive that was mostly all Henry. Auburn eventually forced a turnover on downs on a 4th-and-1 at the Auburn 31, but immediately gave the ball back when Johnson threw a three-yard completion to Peyton Barber and three straight incompletions to Melvin Ray, the final a drop that hit an open Ray right in the hands with 2:09 remaining.

The win sends Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) to the SEC Championship for the second consecutive year, the third time in their last four years and fifth time since 2008. Overall, this will be the Tide’s 10th SEC Championship appearance and eighth time opposite East champion Florida. Alabama is 3-4 in the previous seven meetings.

Auburn closes its regular season at 6-6 and a dead-last 2-6 in the SEC West. No team has see-sawed this decade like the Tigers, with their two SEC championships in the last six seasons but two last place finishes in the SEC West since 2012. The loss drops the Tigers to 2-9 in their last 11 games against SEC competition.

USC dominates UCLA for Pac-12 South crown; Trojans vs. Stanford for Pac-12 title

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For the first time in program history, the school with the most football championships in Pac-12 history will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) snapped its three-game losing streak against crosstown rival No. 22 UCLA (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) in convincing fashion in the second half to pick up a 40-21 win and claim ownership of the Pac-12 South Division championship. The win will send USC to the Pac-12 Championship Game to play Pac-12 North champion Stanford next week.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler may not have put up huge numbers against the Bruins, but his 15-of-26 for 175 yards and two touchdowns without an interception was effective enough to lead the team to a victory. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen for UCLA got his first dose of the rivalry with the Trojans, and it did not go as well. Rosen was picked off twice and he completed just 19 of his 37 pass attempts. Bruins running back Paul Perkins rushed for 95 yards and two scores, but USC’s Justin Davis was the big runner of the day with 130 rushing yards. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson made some big plays happen as well with a punt return for a touchdown. USC’s Rasheem Green had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave USC a 26-21 lead. This proved to be the game-winning score, as the Trojans continued to tack on a couple of more touchdowns on offense.

USC was the preseason favorite of the Pac-12 media at media day this summer, and now they have a chance to make good on those expectations. The fact they have arrived at this point is a fascinating story all by itself given the bumpy path it took to get to this point.

Stanford handed USC its first loss of the season in the early part of the season. The Cardinal took a 41-31 victory against the Trojans and never really looked back in conference play. USC struggled a few more times and had to go through an in-season coaching change with the firing of Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton took over as the interim coach for the Trojans, and quickly calmed the stability of the program after a loss at Notre Dame. USC ripped through Utah to mix up the Pac-12 North and went on to win the next three games before hitting a speed bump on the road at Oregon against a resurgent Ducks program. USC has won more Pac-12 conference championships than any other conference member, including time as the Pac-8 or Pac-10, with 38 conference championships. It has not played in the Pac-12 Championship Game though, but that will change next week.

USC may be able to play spoiler for Stanford’s playoff dreams, if the Cardinal manage to beat Notre Dame tonight. The Pac-12 champion is still unlikely to sneak into the four-team playoff field, but Stanford is the one that has a slight chance to do so. USC, with four losses, will not have enough things bounce their way to make that giant leap.

No. 5 Michigan State clinches Big Ten East, heads to Indy with showdown with undefeated Iowa

Christian Hackenberg, Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas
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Another week, another game where No. 5 Michigan State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) took care of business. The Spartans will play for the Big Ten championship after wrapping up the Big Ten East Division on its home field with a convincing victory over Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) Saturday in East Lansing, 55-16. The win clinched the east due to a head-to-head tiebreaker against Ohio State earned last weekend in Columbus and sets up a battle with undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next weekend.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was not playing at 100 percent, but he was more than effective enough to lead the Spartans to victory in his final game in Spartan Stadium. Cook tossed three touchdowns for Michigan State and was the clear winner in the battle of potential early-round NFL draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg was picked off on the first possession of the game and was not as efficient with his passing as Penn State’s offensive line was manhandled at times by the Spartans defensive front. Hackenberg’s stock has dropped some this season (fitting considering how many dropped passes Penn State receivers have had this season), but Cook’s steady play should keep him among the candidates for top quarterbacks in the draft pool.

Leading by 10 going to halftime, 20-10, Michigan State took firm control of the game right out of the halftime break by driving right down the field on Penn State for an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to build a 27-10 lead. After the Spartans defense forced a three-and-out, Michigan State strung together another draining touchdown drive, going 69 yards over 12 plays and capping the drive with Cook completing a touchdown pass to Josiah Price for a 34-10 lead. From there, Michigan State could waltz its way to the win, because there was no way Penn State was battling back from that deficit with its offensive play and drained and depleted defense.

Michigan State will now play No. 4 Iowa for the Big Ten championship next week in Indianapolis. This will be the first time Iowa has played in the conference’s championship game, but this will be Michigan State’s third trip to the big game. That will tie Wisconsin for most appearances in the Big Ten title game, which was first played between the Spartans and Badgers in 2011. Michigan State won the Big Ten championship in 2013, knocking off what was an undefeated Ohio State team. There is no question that Michigan State is a program ready to play on the big stage this game will offer, especially with so much riding on the outcome with a spot in the College Football Playoff in sight. Getting by Iowa may prove tricky with the Hawkeyes defense, but if Michigan State plays the way it did today against Penn State and has in the past when in a big game, then the Spartans should feel very confident in their chances next week in Indianapolis. The winner of next week’s Big Ten Championship Game is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the four-team playoff field at the end of the season.

Penn State, on the other hand, will begin waiting for a bowl invitation to come their way and prepare to figure out how it can take steps forward as a football program. Penn State will very likely be playing in one of the Big Ten’s lower-profile bowl games. It played in the Pinstripe Bowl last season and will not be going back there. The extra practices will be beneficial for Penn State though, as it continues to need to improve on offensive line. The time off will also be welcomed, as Penn State’s defense has been gassed and depleted down the stretch of the regular season.