Western Kentucky may have found the offensive spark it has been looking for – and it may be coming in one of the more unexpected names on the roster.
Davis Shanley played quarterback for the Hilltoppers after coming off the bench in the first quarter Saturday at Louisville. He helped stake his team to a 14-0 lead, then put them in position for a game-tying field goal that eventually sailed wide as time expired.
Still, WKU perhaps found an answers to its struggles on offense with a young, slim kid from Georgia.
“I love the fight in Davis,” WKU second-year quarterback Mike Sanford said. “At halftime he got the offense together and he pulled ‘em up together and told ‘em we’re gonna finish this thing. That’s something that we’ve been looking for on the offensive side of the ball, is a vocal leader.
“That was great to see. That’s gonna carry. As we keep saying, we gotta lot on the table for the rest of the season, the next nine games. I think you all saw that tonight.”
A redshirt-freshman, Shanley stands at just 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. But he proved Saturday he can hang in a game for the duration while taking a pounding – like on a 3rd-and-8 throw in the fourth quarter in which he waited until the very last second before finding Quin Jernighan for 12 yards and paid the price for his patience.
That was one of just many plays of note during a contest that Shanley entered with 7:20 left in the first quarter. The South Forsyth High School graduate immediately led a touchdown drive from there and finished his day 22-for-33 passing for 240 yards and a touchdown.
He also had a 3-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that put the Tops up 14-0 at that point. Shanley said he would have traded all those numbers in for the letter W.
“I’m kinda really jumping into the ocean now instead of just getting my feet wet,” he said. “But at the of the day the stats and all the touchdowns, it doesn’t matter because the only stat in the books is we lost tonight.”
Here’s ththe play to set all this up pic.twitter.com/NHbR1YO27j— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Western Kentucky redshirt-senior Drew Eckels began the year as the team’s starting quarterback, but got banged around in the team’s first two games – losses at Wisconsin and at home to Maine, respectively. In the latter defeat Eckels took a hard hit to the right shoulder which made his status for Saturday’s game at Louisville, and for the season moving forward, questionable.
With Eckels out, redshirt-sophomore Steven Duncan earned the starting nod against the Cardinals and the gameplan, according to Sanford, was to have Duncan play two series, then Shanley two series, then roll with the QB who the team responded to the most.
Duncan was 3 of 5 passing for 20 yards. His final throw of the night was an interception.
“Based off of how they practiced, that was exactly how we wanted to go. And then we’re gonna go with one. And that’s what we did,” Sanford said. “It gave us a chance to win a football game, but at the end of the day we fell short.”
Shanley, truth be told, made his debut in Week One at Wisconsin, but that game was already well in hand. He completed two of his three passes for 14 yards in that game and rushed for 31 yards on three carries – he also fumbled away the ball in the red zone.
On Saturday, Shanley took the next step. His first drive covered 80 yards while eating more than seven minutes of clock. The 16th snap of that series was a nine-yard TD pass to tight end Kyle Fourtenbary.
“Coach Sanford’s offense is very dynamic. We run a lot of plays a lot of different ways,” Shanley said. “But I think we put a really good drive together (in the first quarter) and it was a little snippet of what we can do.”
The Hilltoppers (0-3) took a 14-3 lead into halftime and appeared intent on springing the upset of their in-state rivals. Shanley said he collected his offensive teammates at the break and implored them to finish the job and to take the remaining 30 minutes one snap at a time.
Western had five second-half drives and three put the Hilltoppers in scoring position with field goal attempts, one of which was blocked and another of which was missed at the buzzer.
“We felt that we just didn’t finish tonight. I thought we were in a pretty good position to win this game,” Shanley said. “I obviously have to do some things better, everyone has to do everything better, but we’re not taking anything away from this game mostly in a positive light. But we know we have a really good chance.”
Shanley’s play at quarterback also gives WKU’s offense new light in the use of a running quarterback. The team’s 2017 starter Mike White went on the NFL for his arm, not his legs. And while Eckels has proved he’s more than capable of using his feet, his speed and quickness aren’t quite at the level of Shanley’s.
In high school, Shanley rushed for 471 yards his senior season and 1,094 during his career. It was apparent through the course of Saturday’s loss the Louisville defense had to respect the quarterback run.
“We watched him in practice – we know what he can do,” WKU nickel back Ta’Corian Darden said. “We got all the trust in him. When he got in there we saw that he was making the right decision, getting the ball out quick and we was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go Shanley, let’s win this game.’ ”
It’s unclear whether Shanley, Duncan or Eckels will be the team’s full-time quarterback moving forward. And Shanley said he’ll continue to practice as if the starting quarterback job is open week to week.
But if nothing else the young QB proved to his teammates and coaches he’s ready to compete for the final nine games of the year.
“I thought he fought his tail off. I thought he played like a warrior,” Sanford said. “I think he’s a guy that we’ve believed in for quite some time. He’s gonna settle in even more as a passer and he was still 66 percent for 240 yards, no interceptions and a touchdown.
“We also gotta help him, too. He’s a freshman quarterback. He hasn’t even started his first game yet. He’s coming on in relief. We’re up here in an ACC environment. It’s jam-packed. We gotta help him, too. We gotta make plays for him down the field. We gotta continue to give him schemes that fit his skill set.”
• WKU’s national offensive rankings after three games are: 48th in passing (262.7 yards per game); 70th in yards per completion (12.1); 73rd in completion percentage (59.6 percent); 83rd with 58 first downs; 84th in time of possession (29:24); 85th in team passing efficiency (128.8); 97th in total offense (374 yards per game); 99th on third down (34.7 percent); 113th with 3.3 sacks allowed per game; 115th in rushing (111.3 yards per game); 121st in scoring (16 points per game) and 129th in the red zone (50 percent).
• WKU’s national defensive rankings after three games are: 32nd against the pass (175.7 yards per game allowed); 34thw with seven tackles for loss per game; 41st on third down (33 percent); 45th with 2.3 sacks per game; 57th in passing efficiency defense (118.2); 61st with 55 first downs allowed; 67th in total defense (369 yards per game allowed); 88th with 28.3 points per game allowed; 98th against the run (193.3 yards per game allowed) and 109th in the red zone (100 percent).
• Western Kentucky redshirt-junior linebacker Ben Holt ranks 22nd nationally with 1.8 tackles for loss per game.
• 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.
• 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 D’Andre 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.
• Western is now 0-18 in front of crowds of more than 54,000 people. Saturday’s attendance at Cardinal Stadium was 54,923.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop