Hilltoppers begin second "half" with trip to Charlotte on Saturday

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As Western Kentucky reemerges from its bye week, its mission is clear, although no less harrowing.

A 1-4 Hilltoppers’ team can hardly afford any more losses if it a) wants to play in the postseason and b) wants to stay in contention for a Conference USA championship. Mike Sanford’s squad has to decide if it’s on the verge of something special or sobering.

“We gotta go in there with the mindset of playing complete, four-quarter football and getting a win,” the second-year WKU coach said. “This conference is wide-open. And I think it’s wide-open for everybody.”

To even begin to consider reaching a bowl game or climbing back toward the top of the standings, WKU (0-1 Conference USA) has to find a way to beat Charlotte (2-3, 1-1 CUSA) at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday. That contest marks the first of seven straight for the Tops against league competition with four of those coming on the road.

At the very least, Western must go 5-2 over the next seven weeks to reach six wins for the eighth straight year. It likely can’t afford another loss in league play to capture an East Division crown (and would also likely need Marshall to lose another conference game somewhere along the way as well).

“If you look at the way the schedule sets up you, quote, end quote, control your destiny in a sense right?” Sanford said. “Middle Tennessee, they’re the team right now in the East Division that has two unbelievably strong victories.

“The most-important thing for us is to go and beat Charlotte. Find a way to get a ‘W’ on the road in conference play. It allows us to play who we need to play, including Charlotte, to go win this conference. That’s what it’s really about. It’s a one-game season each week.”

Western Kentucky goes into the second “half” of the season with more questions than answers – who will play quarterback full time? What to do about red zone inefficiency? Can the team’s offensive line play consistently cohesive?

Sanford and his staff took the off week and will take part of this week to solve the riddle to that first query. Through five games WKU has played all four of its scholarship quarterbacks and three of them – Drew Eckels, Steven Duncan and Davis Shanley – have all played near-equal reps.

The second-year coach stated during the bye week he preferred his offense to have one consistence voice from that position moving forward.

“We’ll make (the QB decision) throughout the course of the week. We’ll keep it in-house,” Sanford said. “When you do have the situation we do it is a positive in the sense that you do have 3-4 guys that have played in critical moments. They’ve proven to be good players, solid players. Just getting into the fourth quarter we want that to be a familiar face for the rest of the team to see out there in those situations.

“We’ll make that determination. And certainly we don’t want to be rotating and getting into quarters and series and halves – and we gotta stay healthy.”

Charlotte, meanwhile, is coming off a bye week of its own after what has been an odd start to the year. The 49ers eased past Fordham to christen 2018, were handled by Appalachian State and then beat Old Dominion in a surprising result.

But the last two times out UNCC has been outscored 77-38 by Massachusetts and Alabama Birmingham, respectively.

Junior running back Benny LeMay (414 rushing yards), redshirt-freshman quarterback Chris Reynolds (1,054 yards passing, six touchdowns) and redshirt-freshman wide receiver Victor Tucker (375 receiving yards) pose the biggest threat for a Charlotte offense that is among the worst in the nation in rushing offense, allowing sacks, scoring, allowing tackles for loss and total offense.

That unit will face a Western defense kicking itself for allowing Marshall to score a game-winning touchdown Sept. 29 in a 20-17 loss.

“Sometimes you can over-analyze (during the bye week). I made sure that we did not do that,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “We definitely looked at the things that we’ve been doing well and things that we need to improve on – and just trying to make sure that we’re getting our players in the right position to finish games.

“Then third and extra longs, for whatever reason we’ve not gotten off the field at the correct percentage that we should. We’ve got off the field, but not enough on that down and distance. Tackling – at times we’ve missed tackles. Why? I think we’ve done a good job of correcting those things, we just gotta continue to try to get better each and every single day as a staff and as a unit.”

After a 1-4 start, Western Kentucky is now 2-9 in its last 11 games. Sanford contributed some of the struggles for this year’s team to the youth movement pulsating through the program.

The Hilltoppers have lost three games by a total of nine points and their lone victory came by eight. So while one play here or there could have had a drastic effect on the team’s results, Sanford believes it’ll take more than a few plays moving forward to completely change WKU’s fortunes.

“When you’re growing through the first experience, the first time you’ve ever been in this situation at this position, I think it’s more about going through those experiences and being better because of them and learning from them,” Sanford said. “And then when you do have that moment where it seems like it all comes together, which I know is coming, and I want it to be this Saturday in Charlotte, it’s not gonna be it’ll just all come naturally because of that one play.

“You’re gonna have to go right back to the drawing board, and especially with a young team you’re gonna have to go and continue to learn how to play with success as something to deal with. I think that’s important for us, is continue to grow forward and get better as a result of all these situations that we’re getting exposed to.”

NOTES

• Sanford said Eckels will not be available to play Saturday.

• Western Kentucky and Charlotte will be meeting for just the second time and for the first time at UNCC – the Hilltoppers won last year’s game 45-14 in Bowling Green. The 49ers are in their fifth year of existence having started its program in 2013.

• A loss Saturday would give WKU its worst start since 2010 when that team was 1-6 after an 0-6 start.

• A loss Saturday would also make WKU 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2014.

• Western Kentucky is 7-11 under coach Mike Sanford and the average margin of defeat in those 11 losses is 11.2 points.

• The Hilltoppers are scoring 23.5 points per game in the Sanford era.

• The Hilltoppers are rushing for 76.5 yards per game in the Sanford era.

• WKU’s previous five opponents are now a combined 14-13 and its next seven opponents are a combined 15-23.

• In games against Louisville and Ball State, WKU did not have a senior in the starting lineup.

• WKU is 12-4 in October since 2014.

• Western Kentucky has zero players from North Carolina. Charlotte redshirt-sophomore defensive lineman Nick Martin played at Dunbar High School in Lexington.

• WKU’s offense now ranks: 40th in passing (260.6 yards per game), 49th with a completion percentage of 62.3, 57th with 5.8 tackles for loss allowed per game; 72nd in time of possession (29:52), 77th in passing efficiency (131.5), 85th on third down (37.5 percent), 87th in total (378 yards per game), 93rd with 96 first downs, 94th with 11.4 yards per completion, 115th in rushing (117.4 yards per game), 123rd in scoring (18.6 points per game) and 125th in the red zone (68.8 percent).

• WKU’s defense now ranks: 36th in passing efficiency (116.9) and on third down (34.3 percent), 38th by allowing 96 first downs, 55th against the pass (220 yards per game allowed), 68th in total (382.6 yards allowed per game), 70th against the run (162.6 yards per game allowed), 75th with 5.8 tackles for loss per game, 82nd with 1.8 sacks per game and 109th in the red zone (92.9 percent).

• Western’s defensive backs Ta’Corian Darden, DeAndre Farris and Devon Key are tied for 37th nationally with 1.2 passes defended per game.

• WKU junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson is 70th nationally with five receptions per game.

• WKU linebacker Ben Holt is 49th nationally with 8.6 tackles per game.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop