BISHOP | Finding hope and belief in yet another defeat, Sanford feels Tops are close to a breakout performance

By  | 

My initial thoughts Saturday night? Arkansas State 2011.

And, I get it, you’re probably sick of me referencing that year of Western Kentucky football – but I can only write about what I know.

That season was Willie Taggart’s second with the Hilltoppers. After a 2-10 year prior, Western came out and lost 14-3 to Kentucky in Nashville, 40-14 at home to Navy and 44-16 at home to Indiana State. Two of those losses were to be expected, one was very much not.

But after a bye week, a bye week that included a public vote of confidence for Taggart from then-WKU athletic director Ross Bjork, the Tops seemed to turn a corner. Win? No. Show signs of life? Yes.

“They were believing,” Taggart said at the time after a 26-22, gut-wrenching loss at home to Arkansas State (the eventual Sun Belt Conference champion). “Those guys came in believing that they could win that ballgame. And they believed to the end, it just didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it to.”

The rest of that 2011 season for WKU turned out to be historic. Taggart’s Tops won 7 of 8 with the only loss coming at Louisiana State. Western deserved its first bowl bid at 7-5, but in a crowded field of eligible teams, was snubbed in December for reasons still unbeknownst to this day.

So how does this in any way shape or form relate to 2018, you ask?

I just couldn’t help but think Saturday night that these particular Toppers are close, too. Close to winning all nine games left on the schedule? There's no way to tell that.

But close to turning things somewhat in the right direction.

The refrains from Mike Sanford seem to echo the sentiments Willie Taggart preached in those days, sentiments that were difficult for us on the outside to believe.

“It’s gonna turn,” Mike Sanford said Saturday. “There was a moment last week where it was close and there was a moment this week it’s close. I got a lot of belief in these players, I got a lot of belief in these coaches. And it will turn. I have no doubt in my mind. And I’m gonna keep fighting tooth and nail until that comes.”

Sanford, like Taggart in 2011, is also in his second year and much has been made of his now 0-3 start and 1-8 record in Western Kentucky’s last nine. And in no way is his situation similar in the sense of what Taggart took over in 2009 to what Sanford took over in 2017 (and, frankly, we’ve discussed that too much already and it’s time to let it go).

The 36-year-old Sanford again faced the Dementors in the media Saturday after yet another defeat. But his message, just like Taggart's seven years prior, was one of belief and hope.

I must admit, I saw it, too. A 20-17 loss to Louisville wasn’t 60 minutes of football gold from Western, but I saw an offensive line that played relentlessly angry, a defense sound and smart in its movements, a young and quick quarterback that may hold the keys to the future, skill position players that, while not perfect in their execution, showed flashes of brilliance and a coach that was fighting to the bitter end for his team to finally win a game.

“Well we went toe-to-toe with an ACC power in the state that we call home and we fell short. There will be no moral victories claimed by myself, by our team, by any of us,” Sanford said. “Clearly there was some improvements that were made from a week ago where our rushing game was nonexistent against an FCS team (Maine) to overall out-gaining an ACC team.

“But at the end of the day we gotta finish the game. That’s what I’m gonna look long and hard at, myself, and continue to find tweaks in practice to find moments that we can create to allow us to finish games at the end. That’s two weeks in a row that we let it get away from us. We as a team, starting with me, we gotta find a way to put teams away.”

Sanford explained postgame that his team’s new mentality will be a simple one – live play-to-play. He’s closed the metaphorical doors to the Western Kentucky football program and wants his team, including himself and his staff, to be concerned with nothing else than what’s immediately next while ignoring any sort of criticism that's out there (even how deserved it may be).

That trickles down to Saturdays where it doesn’t matter if you’ve just scored to go up 14-0 in the second quarter at Louisville or if you’ve watched 2nd-and-goal from the 1 turn into a disastrous blocked field goal two plays later.

“We gotta get in the foxhole together and worry about just executing one rep at a time, one series at a time, one quarter at a time, one half at a time and then ultimately that’s how we’re gonna win games,” Sanford said.

Now we come to the crux of the issue: the nine games left on Western Kentucky’s schedule. How many of those games are winnable? Will WKU win any of them at all? Was Saturday’s performance, albeit in a loss, truly a turning point?

I’ll admit to writing last year I thought a 41-38, triple-overtime win by the Hilltoppers over Middle Tennessee was the victory that would get WKU headed in the right direction and, well, um, it did not. And I have no way of knowing what the next 2 1/2 months bring.

Again, I can only write about what I know – or at least what I think I know. I think Mike Sanford and the Hilltoppers might be on to something.

“I think our team is a lot better than everybody else thinks we are. And we gotta show it. It’s my job to get ‘em to show it,” Sanford said. “I’ve believed that since we started fall camp. I believed that when I watched the film against Wisconsin and I saw glimpses of us playing very good football in the trenches against the best in the trenches that there is in Wisconsin. I saw us come out and be as prepared and excited to play and attack the field against a good Maine team and go up 21-0.

“But it’s putting the whole thing together and ultimately that falls on us to get them to that and us as a family to do that.”

PREDICTION SURE TO BE WRONG

The bad news for Western Kentucky is it’s underdogs at Ball State this week (that’s a Ball State program that’s 10-29 the last 3+ seasons with just six wins over FBS teams).

The good news for Western Kentucky is it’s an underdog to Ball State.

The Hilltoppers have played much better as underdogs so far in this early season. Perhaps they can use the Cardinals being three-point favorites as some motivation?

Ball State, with former WKU coach David Elson at defensive coordinator, has opened the year by beating Central Connecticut State before losing at Notre Dame and Indiana, respectively. The Cardinals are still waiting and hoping for things to click in the right direction for third-year coach Mike Neu.

So what we have here is an 0-3 football team against a 1-2 football team with a pair of coached trying to prove themselves to their respective fan bases in a mostly empty stadium on a cool day in central Indiana. College football everybody!

Given my preamble on buying into the belief that Sanford and company are selling, I guess I’m taking the Tops to win 18-17.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Auburn transfer and Western Kentucky senior forward Desean Murray on what to expect for his 2018-19 season: “My favorite part of the game is doing whatever I have to do to help my team win. And whatever coach needs me to do, anything he needs me to do at that time in that game, I’m gonna do.”

MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK

Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise was released 13 years ago this week and the album by the same name – released later in 1995 – was one of the first rap album's I owned.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop