Mike Sanford thinks his team is close. Close to putting four quarters together and finally getting over the hump for that season’s first win.
Close to playing the type of football he saw in the first five minutes when the Hilltoppers went up 21-0 on Maine and in the first two quarters against Louisville when his boys led 14-0.
But close has not been good enough through three games. Sanford and Western Kentucky need to find a method by which to get over the hump at 2 p.m. CDT Saturday inside Scheumann Stadium against Ball State (1-2).
“Obviously been knocking on the door with it,” Sanford said Thursday. “Right now that’s where we have a missing piece right now is finishing it. There’s nothing that would be more impactful for our team than to get the result that we all wanna get up in Muncie, Ind., and play a complete game as a team.”
It’s the nonconference finale for WKU (0-3) in a year where the stars aligned to present a traditional run of games that have no bearing on the chase for a conference title. Western hasn’t exactly set the world ablaze in those first three out-of-conference tilts – a blowout loss at Wisconsin, a collapse against Maine at home and a second-half surrender at Louisville has the Tops winless.
Those results can be all but completely forgotten if the Hilltoppers can somehow find a way to leave Indiana with a win Saturday.
“With Maine, Wisconsin – every game that we’ve played we’ve seen what we can do,” WKU defensive lineman Heath Wiggins said. “We believe that we can break it out and I think this is the game we’re gonna break out.”
Wiggins is part of a WKU defense looking to go from a solid, dependable unit to a dominant one. Last week’s 20-17 loss was perhaps that side of the ball’s best showing in 2018 as it held U of L to 88 yards passing and a 2 of 11 on third down mark, created an interception and held the Cardinals to no points on one of four trips into the red zone.
Now Western faces a Ball State team that has managed just 13 points per game against FBS opponents. The Cardinals have also turned the ball over four times this season – at least one time each game.
“Our guys, on Sundays in our meetings, I try my best to be as honest as possible with our guys in regards to what we saw live and what we saw on the tape. We are a few plays away, a tweak here, a leverage here, a batted ball here, from shutting some teams down in certain things,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “But you don’t wanna continue being that ‘what-if’ defense. We wanna go ahead and, at one point, put our stamp on it and make sure we send the message, make sure we hit confirm, make sure we hit that send button on that email and make sure it gets sent to offenses around the league that we wanna be serious."
As for WKU’s offense, Sanford’s side will have more new looks about as it continues its slow transition. Running back D’Andre Ferby and left tackle Cole Spencer may not play Saturday, running back Marquez Trigg quit the team Tuesday and redshirt-freshman quarterback Davis Shanley will make his first career start.
The Hilltoppers are coming off their best rushing game under Sanford after totaling 168 yards last week. But they’re still the nation’s worst team in the red zone (4 of 8) and have been unable to play consistent, attacking football for four quarters up to this point.
“Even that second half, like the third quarter itself, there’s been some opportunities for us in the last two ballgames to really do something in the third quarter to kind of get over the hump, not just go up by 14 or go up by 21, but kinda see a team that’s wounded and make a play or impose our will in the third quarter,” Sanford said. “Then the fourth quarter’s just gotta be about focus. That’s the obviously the big emphasis this week in practice.
“We gotta go up in Muncie, Ind., and play with great focus in the fourth quarter.”
Ball State, in its third year under coach Mike Neu, is 10-39 in its last 49 with just six of those wins coming against FBS opponents. The Cardinals whipped Central Connecticut State to begin the season before losing at Notre Dame and at Indiana.
Redshirt-junior Riley Neal makes the BSU offense go and has three wide receivers – each who already have 100 yards receiving – to look for in Riley Miller, Corey Lacanaria and Justin Hall. Running backs James Gilbert and Caleb Huntley (a former WKU commit) are dangerous out of the backfield.
“I think from a schematics standpoint they have some of the best things that we’re gonna see all season. I have nothing but respect for those guys,” White said. “They have a stable of running backs, they have good receivers, they have a slot receiver that’s really good. We have to be on our Ps and Qs to come out with a win on Saturday. Those are guys are really good.
“We have a lot of respect for Ball State – we did last year. It’ll be the same thing on Saturday.”
Western won last year’s matchup 33-21 in Houchens-Smith Stadium, but only thanks to a Jakairi Moses fourth quarter touchdown followed by a Joe Brown pick-6 that sealed the win. That victory was part of a 5-2 start for the Tops – they’ve gone 1-8 ever since and have dropped five in a row overall.
Perhaps a second straight win over BSU can send the Hilltoppers streaking in the other direction.
• Former Western Kentucky coach David Elson is in his second season as defensive coordinator for Ball State. Elson went 39-44 at WKU from 2003-09 and coached at Indiana, Franklin-Simpson High School, New Mexico State, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois before beginning his current tenure at BSU.
• Western Kentucky and Ball State will meet Saturday for the fifth time and just the second time in Muncie, Ind. The two teams have split the previous four matchups and the Tops lost 35-12 their last visit to BSU in 2007.
• Western is on a five-game losing streak and has not lost six straight since dropping six in a row from the end of 2010 to the start of 2011.
• The average margin of defeat for WKU during its current five-game losing streak is 14.2 points.
• The Hilltoppers will try to avoid an 0-4 start this week for the first time since 2011. Other teams in program history which have started 0-4 include: 2010, 2009, 1984 and 1983.
• The last WKU team to go winless against nonconference opponents was the 2011 team.
• Under Sanford, Western has totaled 1,125 yards rushing – an average of 70.3 yards per game.
• A Western running back has not reached the end zone since Oct. 28 when Ferby scored from 11 yards out with 6:52 left in the second quarter against Florida Atlantic.
• In its last 11 games WKU has a total of five rushing touchdowns.
• Anthony Wales was the last player for WKU to record a rush of at least 20 yards when he totaled 32 on a third-quarter run against Memphis in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 20, 2016.
• The Hilltoppers have averaged just 17 points in their last four games.
• Through three games WKU has blown double-digit leads in two of those contests. The 2014 team (8-5) gave up double-digit leads four times (17-7 to Illinois, 24-14 against Middle Tennessee, 27-14 against Alabama Birmingham and 31-14 to Florida Atlantic).
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop