MIAMI (WDRB) — Back when the Western Kentucky University football team was losing its first 18 games after moving the NCAA Division I-A level, it was easy to shake your head at the decision by school officials to pursue big-time college football.

When WKU had lost 26 of its first 28 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, WKU president Gary Ransdell found himself giving a lot of pep talks, telling people to just let it play out, that success takes time.

On Saturday he gave a different kind of pep talk. Isolated from the media (and everyone else in Marlins Park, site of today’s Miami Beach Bowl game against South Florida), Ransdell told the Hilltoppers football team that they had made history, and laid a solid foundation for the future.

But he also told them, “I could not be more proud of what these coaches and especially 21 seniors have done. I just told them they’ve built a foundation, but they’ve got one more brick to lay in that foundation. If we can win we can plant this program in the top 25 and that’s a great thing to build on for the future of this program. . . . This is what we envisioned, and I love to see a plan come together.”

Since that rough FBS start, WKU has won 41 of its last 59 games. It has won 12 conference games in a row — the longest streak in the nation. It has reached the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time as a BCS member.

Most programs making the move from small-college to big-time don’t have success. They collect big paychecks by getting their brains beat in during road games. WKU has gone on the road in recent years and beaten Vanderbilt and Kentucky. It put up a good fight for most of three quarters this season at LSU.

This has not been your typical FBS relocation.

Nor has it come without risk.

Athletic director Todd Stewart took a risk in bringing Bobby Petrino back into coaching just one year after his experience at Arkansas. WKU took some negative publicity over the move, but Petrino had a solid season in Bowling Green, going 8-4 while building on what Willie Taggart had left, then was gone himself, back to the University of Louisville.

Into his place stepped Jeff Brohm, who has become one of the top new offensive minds in the game.

WKU’s ability to move the ball has attracted attention. Its 67-66 win to end Marshall’s unbeaten season a year ago produced an offseason’s worth of highlight reels.

In Monday’s 2:30 p.m. game against South Florida, Stewart says WKU will likely be playing in front of the largest audience ever for one of its games.

“That’s the hope,” Stewart said. “It’s a great thing for the university. And if we can win, and be ranked in the final AP and coaches’ polls, that’s something you can ride for nine months. . . . Our program is riding as high right now as it has ever been.”

A year ago, WKU was a great offensive unit that couldn’t stop anybody. This season, WKU has a great offensive unit with an opportunistic defense that has saved it a loss or two.

“It was kind of embarrassing as a defense to kind of hear about how great the offense was and how bad you guys were,” Ge’Monee Brown, senior defensive lineman, said Sunday. “So after last year ended we just made sure we came in, got stuff right, got bigger and stronger, and just became better. And it paid off this year.”

Offensively, it has been more of the same. Quarterback Brandon Doughty has re-written the school’s record books. He ranks 16th on the all-time NCAA Division I-A list for passing touchdowns, and that’s with little more than two years as a starter.

But in South Florida, the Hilltoppers will face an athletic opponent with a defense predicated on pressure and a sophomore quarterback, Quinton Flowers, who is propelling a high-powered offense with both his feet and arm. More than that, though, they face a South Florida coach in Willie Taggart who began this run that the program is on. WKU was his first coaching job. He played at WKU, and his jersey is retired there.

“If there were a book written about WKU football,” Stewart said. “One of the most important chapters would be Willie Taggart.”

Taggart didn’t downplay the connection this week.

“I tell everyone, everything about me is WKU,” Taggart said. “WKU is in my DNA. I grew up as a young man and a coach there. I’m very embedded in WKU and really excited and proud of their progress. . . . But we have a game to win, and we’re going to compete hard.”

Brohm said he expects the WKU offense to have to deal with a defense that wants to pressure Doughty into mistakes.

“They start with their front four, they're good, they can rush the passer. They're pretty stout up front, so we've got to find ways to negate that,” Brohm said. “You know, you can't allow them to put pressure on the quarterback, you can't allow them to get sacks on the quarterback, which I'm sure that's what they're going to try to do, but at the same time, they don't give up many big plays. So the ability to run the ball, get the ball out quick, and then trying to find some ways to take a few shots and create some big plays is going to be important. I think we've got an idea of what we're going to see and now we just have to block these guys and get open and complete balls and execute."

Expect some new wrinkles from Brohm and the WKU offense. Brohm said bowl games are a good opportunity to try out a few things.

But the message from above, in the WKU athletic and university administration, was made clear this week. This isn’t just any bowl game. It has great importance to the university beyond football. Ransdell said he relayed that in speaking to the team.

“I told them, first of all we’re proud of what you’ve been able to achieve. This team reached all the goals it set out for itself to achieve,” he said. “. . . This bowl game is very important to this program, and not just for them, but for our alumni, our fans, our students, our faculty and our staff. So it’s an important game, and we’re proud of what they’ve achieved. But that’s the thing about goals, once you achieve one, you start setting the next one, and you keep building.”

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