Western Kentucky football is in trouble.
Now what Mike Sanford does about it will determine the fate of the Hilltoppers – and ultimately how long his tenure on The Hill lasts.
Last week, and you can take my word on this or not, I texted a couple people my thoughts on the WKU-Maine game. To me it had a funny feeling surrounding it. A feeling relative to seven years ago.
About that time Willie Taggart was in his second year coaching WKU (just like Mike Sanford is in Year Two this year). Taggart’s Tops hosted Indiana State – a Football Championship Subdivision team – in September that season (just like Sanford’s squad hosted Maine – a Football Championship Subdivision team – this past Saturday). Both visiting opponents had head coaches in at least their third year with their respective program while Western Kentucky had a young, second-year coach struggling to figure things out for himself.
In both instances Western was whipped. Its fans left disgruntled and defeated. The coach was called out for his youth and inexperience and ineptitude. There was expected to be major fallout in Topperland.
We know what happened to the coach from 2011. Now we wait to see what will happen to the coach in 2018.
If you’re saying to yourself right now that it’s unfair to compare Taggart’s situation in ’11 to Sanford’s situation in ’18 well… you’re exactly right. Taggart inherited a downtrodden team without a clue in the world of how to win at a high level. Sanford was gifted a program fresh off two conference titles with one of the most-exciting offenses in all the land.
When WKU lost 40-14 in 2011 to Indiana State those Hilltoppers were then in the middle of a 2-33 stretch. When WKU walked off the field Saturday these Hilltoppers have now gone 1-7 in their last eight after being 34-8 before then.
“I’ll say this,” Sanford began an argument late Saturday night. “The group of young men in that locker room, they’re gonna stick together. We obviously have to put blinders on. I talked specifically about the most-important thing is the opinions in that room, in that locker room – it's just your teammates and caring for each other.”
That’s certainly a sentiment that makes sense – forget everyone else, it’s us against the world, prove the naysayers wrong, et cetera. But can we trust that the players inside Houchens-Smith Stadium will continue to believe in Sanford? Because belief from the outside has bottomed out. And there was certainly a sprinkling of doubt from some current Hilltoppers via social media over the weekend.
I asked Saturday if there was ever a sense on the sideline during Saturday’s nightmare of a collapse and of impending doom that things were about to go sideways, just as they did against Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt, Marshall, Florida International and Georgia State last year?
“I think that even at the end of the game I think that there was an incredible desire and will to win the game. We saw that,” Sanford said about his team blowing a 21-0 lead to trail 31-21 in the fourth quarter. “I thought that our players believed they were gonna win the game. And I fully believe that they expected to.”
Not a lot of people will look back at Western Kentucky’s 2011 football season and remember the Tops lost to Indiana State. They’ll remember the first team in program history to become bowl eligible and have a winning season at that level.
And the possibilities for the 2018 team in that sense are even greater. The loss to Maine (and Wisconsin) are really moot points if Western can reel off 10 straight wins. Shoot, WKU could start the year 0-4 and still win a Conference USA title and a bowl game.
But Saturday didn’t provide many talking points for hope. Scoring 21 points in the first five minutes and then none again for the next 48 minutes of game time? Nine punts? Allowing a defensive touchdown and a blocked field goal?
And the coup de gråce – going for it on 4th-and-1 from your own 15? With five minutes left in the third quarter? In a tie ballgame?
Those examples of course are in a vacuum, but similar ones seem to have reared their ugly heads time and time again. All this and we haven’t even mentioned WKU still being one of the poorest rushing teams you, me, or anyone has seen in quite some time.
Mike Sanford is being paid $800,000 annually to find answers to these issues – and it appears he must find those answers sooner rather than later.
“I think part of it is we gotta be honest with ourselves. I have to be honest with (the team), both good and bad and even self-reflective a little bit. We’re a team and we’re a culture where honesty is obviously a big part of that,” Sanford insisted. “I think that’s gonna be what helps us bounce back from this game – and I fully do expect us to bounce back from this loss. I do. I know nobody else out there does right now, but I feel like the WKU football program that took the field and exploded in that first five minutes (Saturday) like we haven’t seen in quite some time? I think that’s who we are.”
There are likely many of you reading this today clamoring for Sanford to be relieved of his duties arguing the sooner that happens the better. American sports culture now always calls for the head coach to be fired in times of duress with total disregard for monetary or personal repercussions.
I’ll remind you – as I did last year – that Sanford’s contract stipulated a $1.5 million buyout during the first year of his employment. That buyout decreases by $300,000 each year, so if Western Kentucky did opt to make change this year they’d need to find quite the generous benefactor to make that happen.
And I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on the 36-year-old’s abilities quite yet either. Plenty of great coaches have struggled early in their tenures while many more have flourished early on before fizzling out.
But excuses and reasoning for results, however, are running thin for Sanford. The pursuit for solutions must start now.
PREDICTION SURE TO BE WRONG
It has been 20 years since Western Kentucky played Louisville. I would imagine Western fans are now wishing the meeting would have come a few years sooner or be delayed a little bit longer.
In 2016, WKU had a team that could have played toe-to-toe with nearly anyone in the country – and that would have included Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. This weekend the Hilltoppers that get on the bus and head up I-65 are coming off a loss to Maine and can’t figure out a way to run the ball – and that’s not a good recipe.
Louisville is going under some retooling of its own under fifth-year head coach Bobby Petrino. You may remember him from such WKU seasons as 2013.
Petrino has turned to Jawon “Puma” Pass to run his offense and the growing pains have been apparent in a 51-14 dismantling from mighty Alabama and during a sloppy 31-7 weather-delayed win over Indiana State. Averaging 22.5 points in two games I would imagine is giving Petrino sleepless nights.
The history of this series, meanwhile, has not been kind to Western. The Tops have dropped nine straight, haven’t beaten U of L since 1975 and have won just twice since 1947. Western Kentucky was 10-3 against Louisville between 1922-1946.
Louisville begins the week as 21-point favorites and it’s hard for me to argue against that line. A couple x-factors I’ll throw out are is to a) never underestimate Petrino’s ability to gameplan and exploit the opponent (don’t forget former WKU quarterback and grad assistant Nelson Fishback is now on staff at U of L) and to b) not to buy too much of the rivalry rhetoric you may hear this week.
Western only has 34 players on its roster from the state of Kentucky and only 11 of those young men are actually from Louisville (and fewer than that seriously contribute on Saturdays).
Until WKU proves to me it has things figured out offensively, it will be hard for me to pick them to win a game for the rest of this season. So while I think the Tops’ defense will be able to keep it close for a bit, the Cardinals will pull away for a 40-10 win.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Tired of the excuses, we got ball players!— D'Andre Ferby (@Dee_Ferby) September 9, 2018
MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK
Well, I had a son Aug. 29, and he shares a birthday with Michael Jackson.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop