Jonathan Dowling finds redemption, joins something special at WKU

Former Southeast star fits in with Taggart, helps engineer stunning upset of UK

adell@bradenton.comSeptember 20, 2012 

Willie Taggart has been bucking the odds all his life.

It's what enabled him to rise from impoverished beginnings to head football coach at a major college.

As a football player, Jon Dowling was as gifted as they come and nearly threw it away.

He went to Taggart for help.

The two Manatee County products created their own form of redemption when they helped pull off a huge upset on Sept. 15.

Sun Belt Conference Western Kentucky, which didn't start playing NCAA Division I-A football until 2007, defeated Kentucky from the SEC, the conference that produced the past six BCS national champions.

What the Hilltoppers did was amazing. How they did it was astonishing.

WKU scored a touchdown to cut its deficit to 31-30 in overtime. The safest and most logical thing to do then was to kick the extra point and go to a second overtime.

But Taggart doesn't play it safe. It's what made him one of the greatest quarterbacks to come out of Manatee High and enabled him to earn All-American honors at WKU.

If it wasn't for Dowling's three interceptions, the opportunity would likely never have presented itself. In setting the career and regular season record for interceptions at Southeast, he had never picked off three passes in a game.

"Coach 'T' was courageous to go for two, but our program is all about winning, and we are not thinking about next week. Still,

it was a crazy call, but we love him for it," Dowling said.

Taggart defied convention, but not the one he keeps in his mind. He went for a two-point conversation and did it on what some might call a trick play. Tailback Antonio Andrews caught a lateral that looked like a pass from quarterback Kawaun Jakes and then threw it back to Jakes, who ran for the two-point conversion.

If the play failed, Taggart would have been criticized and perhaps ridiculed. It didn't matter to him.

"If you are going to worry about that stuff, you shouldn't coach. I know everyone is not going to agree with me, but I don't get concerned about those things," Taggart said.

He said he also felt it was the right thing to do and that the odds were with him. Being down by a point in overtime, Taggart has used the two-point conversation four times and been successful on three attempts.

"I decided Kentucky had all the momentum, and our defense looked gassed. I didn't want to go into a second overtime," Taggart said. "It's a feel you have for your team. They scored quick in overtime, and their fans had gotten back into the game."

The move caught some of his players off guard. They had practiced the play, but it was supposed to be run from around the 40-yard line and not in a do-or-die situation.

"All game long, our quarterback had been asking me to run the play, and I had told him no. Then in overtime I said to run it, and he looked at me like I was crazy," Taggart said. "I told him, 'Well, you've been wanting to run it all day and now is your chance.' I also put a tight end who hadn't practiced the play. But I wanted him to block for the tailback and he did."

Taggart said it was biggest win for WKU since it became a I-A school. But he still put it behind the I-AA national championship the Hilltoppers won when Taggart was the offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Taggart expected the performance he got from Dowling, who was given his release from former Gators coach Urban Meyer due to personal issues, transferred and sat out last season.

"He is a phenomenal athlete with great instincts. We've seen him do stuff like that with all the interceptions in practice," Taggart said. "He is football smart and can visualize things before they happen. He has all the physical attributes and can be a great safety for us."

Dowling is his own worst critic and said he is grateful to Taggart for giving him a second chance. Not playing last year was difficult, but he turned it into a positive. It gave him a chance to mature.

"This was something I have been waiting on for a long time, and it felt great to be out there playing again," Dowling said. "Coach Taggart has given me a second chance, and it is a blessing. To beat an SEC team feels real good. No disrespect to Kentucky; it would've felt better to beat Alabama, but this was a good milestone. I can't wait to see where I am at when I am playing to my potential."

After Dowling was given his release from Florida, the former five-star prospect was heavily recruited again, but he chose WKU because of Taggart.

"When I was at Florida, I got ahead of myself. Coming here and playing for Coach Taggart brought me back down to earth," Dowling said. "I have the utmost respect for him. We have grown together."

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Dowling is tied with two others for the most interceptions in the country with four and has 72 yards in return yardage. In three games, he has 16 tackles and a blocked kick.

Dowling will be eligible for the NFL draft next spring because he will have been out of high school for three years. He gets asked a lot about what he is going to do, but has maintained the same calm demeanor he assumed since arriving at WKU.

"My goal since high school has always been to be a first-round draft pick," Dowling said. "I can leave, but I try not to think about that and just want to work and play as hard as I can. If it happens (this year), it happens and if it doesn't I still have two years left to play college."

Taggart sees Dowling as a first-round pick someday, but he sure would like to see him around the WKU campus for a few more years.

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