Sanford, Tops approaching Ball State week with positivity
Western Kentucky will have to lay a lot of it on the line Saturday.
A 6 p.m. game at Houchens-Smith Stadium represents the culmination of the first third of the season for a team trying to avoid a 1-3 start and first three-game losing streak since 2012. The Hilltoppers (1-2) host an improved, feisty Ball State team (2-1) unconcerned with Western’s recent woes.
“I looked at (this) as, hey, this is an opportunity to go to work and affect change, starting with the coaches and all the way through the players,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said Monday. “And you gotta have the right mindset, you gotta have the right mentality to do that and I think if they sense any panic out of the leader, if they sense that everything is doom and gloom, then it’s gonna rub off on everybody in the organization. We gotta have tremendous positive attitudes when we go through this week of practice – and we will. We absolutely will because I’m gonna see to it that that’s exactly what we get.”
Sanford’s squad is coming off back-to-back defeats by a combined total of 14 points. The latest setback was excruciating – WKU watched a 22-13 lead with seven minutes to play go by the wayside in a 23-22 loss to Conference USA rival Louisiana Tech.
So going into a bye week next week, and with the brunt of the league schedule still remaining, Western can’t allow those two losses to turn into a third.
“Any time you lose, adversity hits. Certain people react certain ways, so I think a big part for our team is staying together,” WKU senior right tackle Matt Nord said. “We know that it’s a long season ahead so we know we’re not gonna get any better if we fall apart. We just gotta stay together and continue to push forward and grind out good days and get better.
“It’s tough, but like coach said, staying positive is only gonna get good things out of it. Dwelling on the loss is not gonna help anything now. It’s over. It’s gone. So we just gotta learn from our mistakes, move on and we got a great opponent coming to town so we’re just focused on that.”
Ball State, under second-year coach Mike Neu, is off to a 2-1 start with a 15-point win over Tennessee Tech and 20-point win over Alabama-Birmingham and a three-point loss in the opening week on the road at Illinois. The Cardinals rank third nationally in converting third downs, are on of the least penalized teams in the nation and rank second with 9.3 tackles for loss per game.
Anthony Winbush, a redshirt-senior defensive end from Indianapolis, leads the entire country with 6 1/2 sacks.
“He is a very, very good technician. He plays every snap like his hair is one fire. He is gonna come after you – which is what you want,” Sanford said. “You’re not gonna get three quarters of decent football and all of a sudden he comes off the ball looking to create havoc. He’s a guy that you have to know where he’s at at all times and make sure in practicing you’re simulating with your best pass rusher so that you can get our tackles that kind of work.
“I have a lot of respect for the way he plays. Not just because he’s talented. He’s not 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, he’s 6-1, 240 listed, but plays with tremendous technique, tremendous effort and is very physically gifted in terms of his twitch. Definitely a guy that you have to account for.”
The Hilltoppers may be without starting running backs Quinton Baker and D’Andre Ferby. Ferby missed Saturday’s game against LTU and Baker left during the second half of Saturday’s game after 19 carries, 79 yards and a touchdown.
That’s a concern for an offensive line still trying to click, even after a more positive performance in Week Three than in Week Two. But if that unit can come together to help a struggling offense turn the corner to go along with a solid defense, Western can break its first two-game losing streak since 2014.
“Every week is a big game. It’s a big week every week,” WKU cornerback Ta’Corian Darden said. “We go week-by-week, day-by-day and game-by-game. Of course, after two losses, we don’t like those feelings of a loss. We just gotta do whatever we gotta do to make sure we don’t get that feeling again.”
Western Kentucky defensive end Derik Overstreet was ejected for a targeting call Saturday in the fourth quarter during the Louisiana Tech loss. By rule, WKU cannot appeal the ruling and Conference USA must abide by NCAA guidelines which state the ruling must stand.
Overstreet, a senior and four-year starter, must miss the first-half of this week’s game but is eligible to play the second half against Ball State.
• Western Kentucky last lost three games from Nov. 1-17, 2012.
• The Hilltoppers are now 29-7 in their last 36 and 54-27 since the start of 2011.
• WKU is 17-3 in its last 20 home games and averaging 49.45 ppg in this games since 2014.
• Since 2013, WKU is 9-9 in the month of September.
• WKU has not dropped back-to-back home games since Oct. 15-26, 2013.
• Ball State and Western Kentucky will be meeting Saturday for the fourth time in a series that started in 1929. The Hilltoppers have dropped the last two games, a 35-12 defeat in 2007 and 24-7 loss in 2008.
• Since 2012, WKU is 13-1 in nonconference games against Group of 5 opponents and has won 13 straight, the last lost to Central Michigan in the 2012 Little Caesar’s Bowl.