Hilltoppers head into bye week with momentum
The frost is about to be on the pumpkin – and that has proven to be very good news for Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers (2-2) completed the month of September with a less-than-impressive record – but that’s not too different than years past during the program’s recent run of success. Saturday’s 33-21 win over Ball State made WKU 10-9 in September since 2013.
After the year’s ninth month is where the Tops have started a new tradition of turning it up a notch. They’re 24-7 the past four years in October, November and December – and now have two full weeks to rest and recharge before the stretch run.
“Even bigger than not taking a three-game losing streak into the bye week was to really know going into the bye that we have forged a team,” WKU’s first-year coach Mike Sanford said. “A team that now believes that the offense is gonna have the defense’s back. The defense is gonna have the offense’s back. The special team’s unit is gonna have both teams' back.
“That, to me, is what I took away from this game more than anything. I looked over at Wayne Dickens, when the game was on the line, I said, ‘We’re becoming a team tonight.’ That’s exactly what I felt, is that these guys were now becoming a team.”
Western flipped the script from a Week Three, 23-22 loss to Louisiana Tech in which it failed to drain the clock offensively then failed to get a defensive stop. This time around it did both.
Quarterback Mike White led the Tops on a 3:12 drive with less than five minutes to go, handing the ball to freshman Jakairi Moses for a 5-yard TD run that put the home team ahead by five with 1:38 to go. Two Ball State offensive plays later, senior cornerback Joe Brown read a Jack Milas pass and picked it off, going 34 yards the other way to ice the game.
“That was a big turning point in our season,” White said. “We could go out there and crumble and we can start 1-3, or we could go out there and do what we know we’re capable of, pick our defense up and get to 2-2.
“We knew we had it in us and it was just a matter of going out there and putting the plays together.”
Should WKU go on another memorable late-season run it may look toward Saturday’s fourth quarter as indeed being the turning point. The final 15 minutes helped the Tops win a game they nearly lost more than once.
White threw two interceptions – one in the end zone. The Western defense gave up a six-play, 59-yard drive and gave BSU a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter. The Western offense couldn’t convert a 3rd-and-3 from the 17 and had to settle for a field goal with 14:52 left to play.
The Hilltoppers also finished with just 52 net yards on the ground and failed to score on 3 of 8 trips to the red zone.
But a win is a win is a win.
“We just had to find a way to win,” Sanford said. “And that’s what Mike White said to the whole team (Friday) night. In our team meeting on Friday night, he said, ‘I don’t really care what it looks like, I just wanna win. And we just wanna win.’ And that’s exactly what these guys did and found a way to win.”
Bye weeks are nearly always a welcome sight on the calendar and the one on WKU’s slate certainly could be considered as such. Starting running back D’Andre Ferby missed his second straight game and will have two more weeks to heal up a leg injury before the Hilltoppers play at Texas El Paso on Oct. 7.
Backup running back Quinton Baker played sparingly Saturday with sore ribs and a sore hip and starting nickelback Leverick Johnson was out with an unspecified injury.
“We’re gonna get some rest. We’ve had a rough three weeks,” Brown said. “It’s time for us to get everything together and become a better team before we really start getting into conference play. Around this time is when we usually start to excel.”
The opportunity to excel is on a platter for the Hilltoppers. Their next two opponents – UTEP and Charlotte – are a combined 0-8 and the Miners of UTEP, who play at Army on Saturday, have been outscored 191-51 in four games.
Sanford’s hope moving forward for his team is that after breaking a short-lived, two-game losing streak, a newfound confidence coupled with some momentum can lead to the year’s first winning streak.
“I know there’s been years where there’s been really strong teams. But every year’s a new year. We’re a new coaching staff. There’s a lot of new players. A lot of freshmen players that are playing,” he said. “So it’s a completely different dynamic. Different makeup of the personnel that’s out there on the field. (Saturday) we became a team.
“Does that mean everything’s perfect and there’s nothing to clean up? Absolutely not. There’s so much to clean up. But that was what I took away from the day, that we truly became a team – a cohesive outfit.”
• WKU’s offense now ranks 25th nationally in completion percentage (66 percent), 41st on third down (43.9 percent), 49th in passing (261.8 yards per game), 59th with 79 first downs, 77th in time of possession (29:15), 92nd in passing efficiency (123.89), 101st in scoring (23.3 points per game), 104th in total (336.5), 112th in the red zone (70.6 percent), 113th with 10.37 yards per completion and 124th in rushing (74.8 yards per game).
• WKU’s defense now ranks 30th against the run (111.8 yards per game allowed), 41st in scoring (20.3 points per game) and passing efficiency (114.12), 52nd in total (361.8 yards per game), 74th with 78 first downs allowed, 84th in the red zone (86.7 percent), 85th in passing (250 yards per game allowed), 102nd in tackles for loss (4.8 per game), 105th on third down (45 percent) and 112th in sacks (one per game).
• WKU senior quarterback Mike White now ranks 14th nationally with 25.3 completions per game, 27th with 1,047 passing yards, 32nd in completion percentage (66) and 33rd with 261.8 passing yards per game.
• White is 381-for-569 (66.9 percent) for 5,410 yards, 39 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as WKU’s starting quarterback.
• WKU senior Kylen Towner now ranks 14th nationally with 30.7 yards per kickoff return.
• WKU junior cornerback DeAndre Farris now ranks 12th nationally with 1.8 passes defended per game.
• WKU senior cornerback Joe Brown now ranks 12th nationally with two interceptions.
• Western Kentucky ranks 114th nationally and 12th in Conference USA in average attendance (17,476) and 71st nationally and fourth in Conference USA in percent capacity (79.03).
• The Hilltoppers are now 30-7 in their last 37 and 55-27 since the start of 2011.
• WKU is 18-3 in its last 21 home games.
• Since 2013, WKU is now 10-9 in the month of September. The Hilltoppers are 24-7 since then in October, November and December.
• Since 2012, WKU is 14-1 in nonconference games against Group of 5 opponents and has won 14 straight, the last lost to Central Michigan in the 2012 Little Caesar’s Bowl.
• In its last 11 games, WKU is allowing 92.7 yards per game on the ground and 100.4 in the last 18. South Florida, in the 2015 Miami Beach Bowl, was the last team to rush for more than 200 yards against the Hilltoppers.