Hilltoppers break into win column by following through with finish mantra

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Western Kentucky finally finished. Now it has to find a way to start something.

A 28-20 win over Ball State on Saturday in Muncie, Ind., broke a five-game losing streak for the Hilltoppers. It was a triumph in which they harped upon their ability to play well – in spurts – in all four quarters.

Now WKU (1-3) comes home to begin league play against Marshall (2-1) with some renewed spirit and energy looking for its first winning streak since a four-game run from Sept. 23-Oct. 20 of last year.

“We needed this, but we also know we’re gonna have to play a lot better. We are,” WKU’s second-year coach Mike Sanford said. “We can’t have the penalties we had, we can’t miss tackles the way we did. If we wanna beat Marshall we gotta play a tight, tight game for four quarters.”

Western certainly didn’t play flawless ball Saturday inside Scheumann Stadium, but it undoubtedly showed some moxie and wherewithal in pulling out its first victory since Nov. 17. The Tops trailed 7-0. And 10-7. And 13-7. And 20-14.

Yet came back time and time again before delivering two fourth-quarter daggers – an 18-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Steven Duncan to tight end Mik’Quan Deane and a 5-yard run from redshirt-freshman running back Joshua Samuel. Then Xavier Lane became an unlikely defensive hero by knocking down Ball State’s final pass in the end zone as time expired.

“We honestly knew that it was coming but we didn’t know when,” Deane said of finally getting over the hump. “So we just stayed and worked hard after practice, keep pushing, keep pushing day by day and all the glory goes to god.”

Three weeks after letting an upset bid slip away in a 34-3 loss at Wisconsin, two weeks after a brutal collapse at home to Maine and a week after coming oh-so-close to stunning in-state enemy Louisville, WKU finally finished off an opponent off despite committing 11 penalties, allowing 405 total yards and watching its starting quarterback leave the game with an injury.

Sanford’s squad kept fighting and scratching and clawing its way to victory no matter what was thrown its way on a cool and dreary day in Indiana.

“I was just wanting this for the players because I wanted them to feel joy and feel tangible evidence of fighting the fight. And that was what we saw tonight,” Sanford said. “That locker room is incredible right now. That’s because it’s been tough. It has not been easy. It’s been a tough run, it’s been a tough stretch.

“And we knew, three out of four games on the road to start the season out is not ideal for anybody. For them to put the game together the way they did, very proud of them.”

The story within the story was the play of Duncan. After being suspended for the opener against Wisconsin for an offseason arrest for a DUI, the South Carolina native didn’t make his WKU debut as a starter until last week in Louisville in place of the injured Drew Eckels.

Duncan wasn’t expected to play Saturday, but when Shanley came out for the third quarter his right shoulder wasn’t cooperating. Enter Duncan, who promptly drove the Hilltoppers 75 yards in 13 plays and threw a 4-yard shovel pass to Deane to put his team ahead 14-13.

“Playing football and getting a win, there’s nothing better than playing a kid’s game and doing what you love. That’s the best feeling ever,” Duncan said. “Last week it was my first game in, I think, three years. So just being able to come out there and just getting a second chance, like I said, it’s unbelievable what god can do and he gave me a second chance to come in and play with those guys I love playing with. That was awesome to go down and score with them.”

At 1-3 Western Kentucky is by no means in a position to feel unflappable. It will go into the fifth week of the season with two injured quarterbacks, two missing veteran running backs (one who quit the team and who is week-to-week with an injury) and a starting left tackle that is out indefinitely with a leg injury.

Confidence, however, is brewing for an offensive line that has fared well two weeks in a row and for an offense that has shown glimpses of excitement whether Eckels, Shanley or Duncan is behind center.

And the Hilltoppers’ 192 rushing yards at Ball State was a single-game high in Sanford’s 17 games. Samuel finished his night with 91 yards on 19 carries and both Duncan and Shanley combined for 71 yards on the ground. The two QBs also went 25-for-35 combined for 252 yards and two scores.

Western also gave up just one sack and averaged 4.8 yards per rush attempt.

“For us to put the game on the backs of our offensive line, it’s what we did. We put the game on the backs of the offensive line and Josh Samuel and Gino Appleberry at the end,” Sanford said. “And to see them carry our team to victory – I mean, they’re might not be a group in Warren County that’s been more criticized than our offensive line – probably me.

“But that group, we put the game on their back and they finished physically. All that work that they put in, all the synergy that they’re creating, all that toughness that I knew that they had, for us to have almost 200-yard rushing performance? Really good to see from that group. Proud of those guys.”

Western Kentucky will have a few major motivating factors this week: It’s a rivalry week with Marshall coming to town, it’s the Conference USA opener and its the final game in a five-game, season-opening stretch before a bye week. The one big push for Sanford will be to see the postgame locker room celebration for a second week in a row.

That’s a sight that had been missing for some time before Saturday.

“I was talking to my wife earlier (Saturday) – just the desire for me to see a win for these players,” Sanford said. “Not even really for myself, and I mean this, and not for anybody else but for these players.

“And the reason for that is people don’t get to see what happens on a day-to-day basis around the building. They don’t get to see the work that those players are putting in. The type of fight they’re exhibiting every day."

NOTES

• Saturday’s victory allowed WKU to avoid an 0-4 start for the first time since 2011.

• The Hilltoppers also broke a five-game road losing streak with their win Saturday.

• Western snapped an 11-game streak of having at least one turnover.

• WKU’s national ranks offensively are: 25th with 4.5 tackles for loss allowed per game; 48th in passing (260 yards per game); 51st in completion percentage (62.5 percent); 52nd with 87 first downs; 63rd on third down (40.6 percent); 75th in team passing efficiency (134.1) and in time of possession (29:54); 86th in total (391.5 yards per game); 87th with 11.6 passing yards per completion; 97th with 2.75 sacks allowed per game; 101st in rushing (131.5 yards per game); 117th in scoring (19 points per game) and 125th in the red zone (66.7 percent)

• WKU’s national ranks defensively are: 49th in team passing efficiency defense (119.1) 54th against the pass (203 yards allowed per game); 59th on third down (36.4 percent); 62nd with 6.3 tackles for loss per game; 65th with two sacks per game); 72nd in total (378 yards allowed per game); 74th with 26.3 points allowed per game; 81st with 79 first downs allowed; 86th against the run (175 yards allowed per game) and 117th in the red zone (100 percent).

• Shanley is 27th nationally with a completion percentage of 67.3 percent and 70th with a passer efficiency rating of 136.2.

• Safety Devon Key and cornerback DeAndre Farris are tied for 51st nationally with 1.3 passes defended per game.

• Receiver Lucky Jackson is 70th nationally with five receptions per game and 81st with 71 receiving yards per game.

• Linebacker Ben Holt now ranks 33rd nationally with 1.5 tackles for loss per game and 51st with nine tackles per game.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop