Western Kentucky looked like a Bobby Petrino-coached team as the Hilltoppers beat Kentucky, 35-26, Saturday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – The conversation started on the Western Kentucky sidelines late in the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers were 15 points ahead of the University of Kentucky, cruising to a 35-26 victory at LP Field Saturday night.
What's the best way to put an exclamation point on this thunderous victory? A Gatorade shower for the head coach to help Bobby Petrino celebrate his first win at WKU?
The coaching staff quickly vetoed that idea. Not because Petrino had put out word he didn't like getting iced. There was another reason:
The coaches and leading WKU players did not consider this dominating win an upset, even though the Hilltoppers were 4 1/2-point underdogs. Petrino certainly did not.
"He thought they were going to win," said Petrino's father, Robert. "He really likes his team."
There is a lot to like at Western Kentucky now that Petrino is on the sidelines, directing every twitch of the Hilltoppers' offense. Petrino is a regional hero today who is 60 marvelous minutes away from returning to the national stage next weekend at Tennessee.
This was no overachievement, no Music City miracle, no celebration of a trick play finish like the game the Hilltoppers won against the Wildcats in Commonwealth Stadium last season. This was Example A of what everybody thought of Bobby Petrino as a football coach before he and his career fell off that motorcycle in Arkansas nearly 17 months ago.
WKU never trailed. WKU outgained the Wildcats by 68 yards and possessed the ball an extra 10-plus minutes. WKU scored on three of its first four drives. WKU moved the football at least 60 yards for all five of its touchdowns. The Hilltoppers' offense was crisp, relentless and imaginative. It was a Bobby Petrino offense.
"Three years ago they overpowered us," WKU president Dr. Gary Ransdell said. "Two years ago they beat us in a close game. Last year we beat them in overtime. They thought we celebrated too much, but last year was an emotional moment.
"This year we felt like we were going to win this football game. We felt like we had a better team, a better program … Look at the stats. I expect they'll speak for themselves.
"I expect we gave Tennessee some things to think about this week."
You could say that again – and I know that Tennessee won its opener, 45-0, against Austin Peay Saturday. Western visits Knoxville on Saturday. That will be Petrino's chance to roar back into the national conversation.
Kentucky and Tennessee both had coaching openings after last season. Neither placed a phone call to Petrino.
You can't criticize either school for that. His image was at least semi-toxic. His exit at Arkansas for lying about an affair with a subordinate combined with the way he walked out on the Atlanta Falcons in mid-season combined with the way he lied about pursuing job openings when he coached at the University of Louisville made it impossible for an SEC athletic director to wade into an introductory press conference and expect to win.
Did Mr. Petrino worry that his son would not get another coaching opportunity, especially this soon?
"Yes, I did," he said. "And he did, too."
Enter Western Kentucky and Ransdell, its irrepressibly ambitious president and his athletic director Todd Stewart. The Hilltoppers have invested heavily in their football program, eager to upgrade their brand as a school that can compete and win at the FBS level.
Western needed a coach. Willie Taggart, an alumnus and former WKU quarterback, left for South Florida after winning 7 of 12 regular-season games. Petrino needed a job. Petrino had ties in the Bluegrass. FootballMatch.com could not have created a better marriage.
Ransdell and Stewart say it was not a difficult decision – and one they have never regretted, not for a single second. Check the turnstile count from Saturday night -- 46,723, nearly double the turnout from when the same two programs played in this facility in 2011.
"Everything since December, every speech, every interview, every alumni meeting, he's been great to work with," Ransdell said. "I could not be more proud of him and this whole group of coaches."
Petrino looked ecstatic after every post-game hug – one from Ransdell, another from his wife, Becky, another from his father and two more from his grandchildren. Most of his players joined the fun, too.
"It's awesome," he said. "Everybody that's here from my family is great. It puts a smile on my face, there's no question about that."
And there was no question that Western Kentucky looked like a team coached by Bobby Petrino.
Quarterback Brandon Doughty entered the game with 14 career completions for 113 yards. He completed 27 of 34 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown without an interception.
Anybody who says that Petrino is a pass-happy coach has not been paying attention. He works the field by making certain that his most productive players touch the football. WKU had two backs – Antonio Andrews, 99 yards; Leon Allen, 92 yards – who nearly rushed for 100 yards.
And the defense delivered their share of nasty licks, especially linebackers Xavius Boyd and Andrew Jackson.
"We've got four or five all-American candidates on this team and I think they played that way tonight," Ransdell said. "We were the better conditioned team and we executed exactly as we were coached. You've got to love it."
The college football nation will be loving it, too, if Bobby Petrino can beat another Southeastern Conference team next Saturday in Knoxville.