Nineteen games into the Mike Sanford era and six games into the 2018 season, the Western Kentucky football program has some major, big-picture questions that need to be answered.
The Hilltoppers went on the road to Charlotte on Saturday to face a fledgling program in just its fifth year of competitive football and were whipped up and down the field in every way during a 40-14 loss. The 49ers outscored WKU 31-7 in the second half.
Oh, and Sanford had two full weeks to prepare his team for that game.
“I don’t think the team wasn’t ready to play. I think they had great energy,” Sanford said. “You get hit in the mouth early on the road, you gotta be able to respond. That’s where I think we didn’t quite respond. I gotta continue to be that voice for those guys to help get them back after that happens and not allow it to compile.”
Western is now 2-10 in its last 12 games with a 28-20 victory at Ball State and 41-38, triple-overtime triumph at home over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 19. The 10 defeats have been relatively close affairs – although no less frustrating.
But Saturday’s come apart was alarming. Charlotte, a team WKU beat 45-14 last year and a program 9-32 in its last 41, looked like world-beaters while scoring 31 straight second-half points and 34 unanswered overall.
Sanford’s team is 0-2 in league play for the first time since 2014 and has to virtually win out to reach six wins for the eighth consecutive season. Western has to find a way to beat a 1-6 Old Dominion team at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium to avoid being 0-3 in conference play for the first time since 2009.
“Against everybody in this conference, you’re gonna have to have your best every single game to win and to even give yourself an opportunity to go out in the second half and win. We did that in the first half (at Charlotte),” Sanford said. “As many mistakes that were made in the first half, we gave ourselves an opportunity to get a road win against a team that right now is 2-1 in Conference USA play. Everyone wants to heap it on Charlotte for what they’ve been, they’ve been building a program too, just like Western Kentucky built. They’re a team that played with a lot of freshmen and sophomores a couple years ago an now those guys are juniors and seniors.”
Sanford, 36, in December of 2016 signed a four-year contract to be paid $800,000 annually. He’d be owed $1.2 million dollars should Western Kentucky administration chose to terminate that contract (that figure decreases by $300,000 each season hereafter).
There has been no public indication WKU is even considering a coaching change at this time and it may be premature to even float such a notion. Sanford has six games left this season to make sure that doesn’t become a louder talking point.
“I don’t concern myself with what’s outside the walls of our building. The men and even the women that are a part of our staff and over here in Diddle (Arena) with (athletic director) Todd (Stewart) and the athletic department, we are fighting the good fight,” Sanford said. “I believe in what we’re doing. I believe that great times are ahead of us. I think the culture of the team is in a good place. And I think we have a lot of talented players. I think we have a lot of talented coaches. I like where we’re headed, I don’t like the result. I think that we were extremely competitive in some games obviously through the first five games of the year. I do believe that this is not consistent with who we are as football team.
“Now we all live and die by the most-recent result. That most-recent result? It created a lot of pain for a lot of people involved in this program. But what you do with that pain and where you turn to and where you go next is the most-important thing. And that suffering, that pain of a loss, of a bad loss, of a tough loss, that has to propel you forward and it can’t allow you to take steps backward. I don’t believe that myself or anybody in this program thinking about anything else than beating Old Dominion. That’s where our focus solely lies. And I really do believe that.”
• Western Kentucky is now 7-12 under Sanford and 2-10 in its last 12.
• WKU is a 5-point favorite this week over Old Dominion. The Tops are 0-2 against the spread as favorites this season and 1-9 agains’t the spread as favorites under Sanford.
• Old Dominion and WKU will be meeting for the fifth time since 2014. Western has won all four previous matchups by an average margin of 19.5 points.
• The Hilltoppers are scoring 23.1 points per game in the Sanford era.
• The Hilltoppers are rushing for 74.7 yards per game in the Sanford era.
• WKU’s 107 points through six games is its fewest since the 2009 team had just 91 points after six games that season.
• The Hilltoppers will be looking to avoid a 1-6 record for the first time since 2010.
• Western’s offense now ranks: 36th with a completion percentage of 63.5, 47th in passing (252.8 yards per game), 60th with 5.8 tackles for loss allowed per game, 85th in passing efficiency (128.3), 87th on third down (37.1 percent), 93rd with 96 first downs, 94th in time of possession (28:27), 103rd in total (357.7 yards per game), 107th with 10.8 yards per completion, 121st in rushing (104.8 yards per game) and in the red zone (72.2 percent) and 125th in scoring (17.8 points per game).
• Western’s defense now ranks: 48th in passing efficiency (121.9), 55th by allowing 124 first downs, 63rd against the pass (222.8 yards per game allowed), 73rd in total (393.5 yards allowed per game), 74th on third down (39.3 percent), 79th against the run (170.7 yards per game allowed), 82nd in the red zone (85.7 percent), 90th with 1.7 sacks per game and 98th with 5.2 tackles for loss per game.
• WKU safety Drell Greene is eighth nationally having recovered two fumbles.
• Western’s defensive back Ta’Corian Darden is 34th nationally with 1.2 passes defended per game.
• WKU junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson is 78th nationally with 4.8 receptions per game.
• WKU linebacker Ben Holt is 54th nationally with 8.5 tackles per game.
• WKU wide receiver Jacque Sloan is 77th nationally with 15.9 yards per reception.
• Saturday’s game is the 1,000th in program history for Western Kentucky.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop