Tops go into bye week reeling from close losses

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Western Kentucky heads into its bye week searching for good fortune, wondering when a few breaks will go its way.

After five games and four losses, three that have come each by three points, the Hilltoppers (1-4) have to turn things around in a major way to get back to the postseason. They’ll need to end the year at least 5-2 to reach bowl eligibility for the eighth straight season.

“We’re ready to put it all together,” WKU redshirt-sophomore Steven Duncan said. “This team’s really good – we’re really freakin’ good. I believe in every single one of these guys. They’re determined and they’re ready to bounce back. And I am too and I’m ready to help ‘em out and do my job. It is gonna come together. Trust in the process is our thing and it’s gonna come together for us.”

Much like the entirety of his teammates, Duncan had equal reason to take blame for the loss and to take credit for keeping WKU in the game against one of Conference USA’s title contenders. In his second career start and during a game in which he became the first Western QB to take every offensive snap this season, Duncan threw for 263 yards and a touchdown and also ran in a score.

Duncan's 60-yard bomb to Jacquez Sloan in the waning moments gave the Hilltoppers a chance to tie or take the lead.

But Duncan also threw a pick earlier in the game and fumbled at the 10 going in with 24 seconds left with Western Kentucky down 20-17.

Duncan’s offensive teammates had similar highs and lows – the line could only manage to help WKU gain 61 yards and gave up four sacks, running back Joshua Samuel lost a fumble and the Tops could only manage three points off three takeaways.

And speaking of those takeaways, the Western Kentucky defense had key interceptions from Ta’Corian Darden and DeAndre Farris and got a fumble recovery from Julien Lewis, yet also gave up a 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter that included the game-winning 32-yard touchdown pass.

The Hilltoppers have now allowed 41 points in the fourth quarter this season.

“We’re that close. We just gotta continue to get better and make the play that’s gonna seal the game,” Farris said. “Defense, we feel like we played good, but at the same time, we put a lot of emphasis on finishing games in the fourth quarter and that’s something we didn’t do (Saturday).”

One could argue coach Mike Sanford’s team is a few plays away from going into the off week 4-1. But those plays were never made, thus WKU is staring down the barrel of a possible losing season and the first consecutive losing seasons since the 2008-10 stretch.

The remaining schedule doesn’t present any gimmes outside of maybe the home finale when the Tops host winless Texas El Paso. And at this point Western has to take the next two weeks to continue to figure out how to run the ball consistently, who its long-term quarterback is and how to put together four quarters.

A lot to ask as the calendar turns to October.

“One thing I’ll say about our team, and I know a lot of people aren’t gonna agree with this, I think we got a really good football team,” Sanford said. “I think the hope and togetherness and the growth that we’re seeing as a team – it’s gonna come together. That locker room is a different locker room. It’s a group that’s together, it’s fighting every day and it’s getting better.

“I do believe in the men in that locker room. I believe in those players and I think there’s gonna be some fun times coming up if we stay together and fight like they are.”

NOTES

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

• WKU’s offense now ranks: 44th in passing (260.6 yards per game), 48th with a completion percentage of 62.3, 62nd with 5.8 tackles for loss allowed per game; 70th in time of possession (29:52), 75th with 96 first downs, 80th in passing efficiency (131.5), 81st on third down (37.5 percent), 87th with 11.4 yards per completion, 93rd in total (378 yards per game); 113th in rushing (117.4 yards per game), 120th in scoring (18.6 points per game) and 124th in the red zone (68.8 percent).

• WKU’s defense now ranks: 35th in passing efficiency (116.9), 43rd on third down (34.3 percent), 65th against the pass (220 yards per game allowed), 68th with 5.8 tackles for loss per game, 71st in total (382.6 yards allowed per game), 74th against the run (162.6 yards per game allowed), 75th by allowing 96 first downs, 77th with 1.8 sacks per game and 111th in the red zone (92.9 percent).

• WKU’s previous five opponents are now a combined 11-10 and its next seven opponents are a combined 13-20.

• Western’s defensive backs Ta’Corian Darden, DeAndre Farris and Devon Key are tied for 61st nationally with 1.2 passes defended per game.

• WKU junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson is 70th nationally with five receptions per game and 73rd with 325 receiving yards.

• WKU linebacker Ben Holt is 54th nationally with 8.6 tackles per game.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop