December 15, 2015

The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl produced one of the more memorable - and infamous - finishes of the 2014 postseason.

There's no hostility existing between this year's participants, however, due to the close ties that bind No. 25 Western Kentucky and South Florida.

Willie Taggart's turnaround of the USF program in his third season likely comes as no surprise to followers of the Hilltoppers, since he did the same in three years as Western Kentucky's head coach from 2010-12.

Those roots run considerably deeper for Taggart as he prepares to face his former school for the first time Monday afternoon at Marlins Park. The 39-year-old also was a standout quarterback for the Hilltoppers and served eight years as an assistant at his alma mater following his playing career.

"I'm sure there will be some emotions," said Taggart, still WKU's career leader with 47 rushing touchdowns and one of only four players in program history to have his jersey retired.

"When you talk about the history of Western Kentucky football, if there was a book that would be written on that, there would be a long chapter on Willie Taggart," WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said. "He's been an instrumental figure in this program as a player, as an assistant coach, and then obviously as a head coach he played a big, big role in getting things going here."

Western Kentucky (11-2) earned its first bowl berth as an FBS school with a trip to the 2012 Little Caesar's Pizza during Taggart's final season. The Hilltoppers have reached even greater heights under Jeff Brohm, following up last year's 8-5 campaign and Bahamas Bowl win by recording two other firsts, a Conference USA title and inclusion in the AP Top 25.

"We are feeling good about we're at, but our guys want to achieve more," Brohm said.

One of Taggart's former recruits also has had a huge impact on the Hilltoppers' rise. Quarterback Brandon Doughty (4,594 yards, 45 TDs) leads the nation in touchdown passes for a second straight year and is a two-time Conference USA MVP. The sixth-year senior with an NFL future closes out a brilliant college career with a homecoming, hailing from the Miami suburb of Davie.

Doughty and wide receiver Taywan Taylor (79 catches, 1,363 yards, 17 TDs) headline a prolific offense that ranks third in the FBS in passing yards (365.4 ypg) and fourth in scoring (44.2 ppg).

South Florida (8-4) has shown it can light up the scoreboard as well. The Bulls totaled 153 points in consecutive wins over Temple, Cincinnati and Central Florida, capping a 7-1 stretch that garnered USF its first bowl game since 2010.

The Bulls went 6-18 in Taggart's first two seasons.

"The beauty is they're a young team, they're young guys, and they're learning to be that way at a young age," Taggart said. "The future is very bright here at USF."

That optimism is centered around a pair of sophomores, running back Marlon Mack (1,273 rushing yards, 8 TDs) and dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers (883 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 21 TD passes). The duo heads a relentless rushing attack that's amassed at least 242 yards in all eight wins.

With both offenses humming, the game could be in store for another high-scoring affair. Memphis topped BYU 55-48 in last year's double-overtime thriller that was marred by an ugly benches-clearing brawl at its conclusion.

Western Kentucky may be without one of its playmakers, though, after tight end Tyler Higbee re-injured his left knee in a 45-28 victory over Southern Miss in the Dec. 5 C-USA championship game. The all-conference first-team selection has eight touchdown catches in nine games.

USF, 4-2 all-time in bowls and winners of three straight, has won four of six meetings with the Hilltoppers. Taggart was the quarterback in WKU's two victories in 1997 and 1998 and the coach in its 24-12 loss to the Bulls in 2010.

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