Quarterback Mike White has been sacked five times. Last week the Illinois defense was credited with four QB hurries. Western Kentucky, as a team, has just 106 total rushing yards after two games.
Offensive line play has become somewhat of a concern for the Hilltoppers (1-1) in the early stages of the season.
“We’ve addressed some issues. We’re gonna be competitive at the left tackle position this week. We’re gonna be a competitive situation between Jimmie Sims and Parker Howell,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said Monday. “Nothing’s going to be determined ’till gameday. We gotta make sure Mike White’s backside is protected. That’s not just a Week One to Week Two theme, it’s been two weeks into the season.”
All of WKU’s offensive woes from a week ago can not strictly be pinned on Sims, a redshirt-senior from New Orleans. But two critical plays Saturday had Sims in the thick of it.
Down 6-0 with 90 seconds left in the half, White dropped back to pass on 2nd-and-12. Illinois called for a bull rush through the left side of the WKU line – and White never stood a chance. His desperation heave was picked off and taken back 10 yards for six.
On the very next possession, at the Illinois 12, White went to pass on first down and Bobby Roundtree stormed through the left side, sacking White and forcing a fumble.
“Competition always makes guys better, in general. At the left tackle position, (Sims) is incredibly physically gifted. Probably one of our more physically gifted offensive lineman in our program, very talented.” Sanford said. “I think just making sure that all of our players understand that you gotta compete every day to keep your job.
“Parker Howell’s a guy that has always come to work with the right attitude and mindset – so has (Sims). But (Howell’s) a guy that has played with really good technique. And used the techniques that coach (Geoff) Dartt’s taught him. Now we’re gonna open it up and see who does a better job this week in practice.”
Howell (6-foot-4, 290) spent the 2015 season as a redshirt and played in five games last year. The Christ Presbyterian (Nashville) graduate won a state title with CPA in 2014 and was considered a three-star prospect with offers from Air Force, Appalachian State and Middle Tennessee.
If he starts Saturday, he'll be the fourth new lineman to start this season joining Sims, Matt Nord at right tackle and Miles Pate at right guard.
“I’m going in playing as hard as I can, doing what I can for my team when my name’s called on,” he said. “We’ll just see what coach Sanford’s thinking when the game comes.
“The whole time I’ve been here, that’s why I was recruited to play here to come out and play on the field. Been behind Forrest (Lamp) for a couple years, been behind (Sims) now, got to learn a lot. And with a good coach like (offensive line) coach (Geoff) Dartt, really got to get a lot of work done in the film room and now getting to translate that on the field is awesome.”
Whether Howell or Sims gets the start at 6 p.m. Saturday against Louisiana Tech (1-1), the entire Western offensive line with have to do a much better job in the ground game. The Tops had a lackluster six rushing yards at Illinois and just 100 against Eastern Kentucky.
Redshirt-junior D’Andre Ferby, redshirt-sophomore Marquez Trigg and sophomore Quinton Baker have found little room to break free in what is supposed to be an attack predicated on the run.
“I’ll take ownership as the coach. They’re correctable mistakes,” Dartt said. “We had an outstanding practice (Tuesday). The guys are working hard and that’s all we can ask for and it’s on me to make the corrections and the adjustments for them to execute. And I’m confident they’ll do that.
“We’re close. I know it’s frustrating to watch as a fan. Our job is to continue to grind out good days and that’s what we’re gonna do. I’m confident we will.”
Louisiana Tech surrendered 133 yards in the opening week against Northwestern State – but allowed 4.03 yards per carry. Last week Mississippi State torched the LTU defense to the tune of 327 yards on 40 totes – an average of 8.2 yards per carry.
In the last four meetings, WKU has averaged 154.5 rushing yards per game against Tech.
“As an O-lineman you take pride in being able to move the ball on the ground,” Howell said. “So that’s something we definitely have to improve on this week and I think that we will. We’ve been putting in the time and the effort. I think we’ll be good.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop