If Western Kentucky took a small step forward Aug. 31 at Wisconsin, it took two major steps – nay, tumbles backward Saturday inside Houchens-Smith Stadium.
A 31-28 loss to Maine – a loss in which the Hilltoppers led 21-0 in the blink of an eye to start the night – was perplexing as it was disturbing. Mike Sanford’s team went from unstoppable to helpless on offense and from fiery to fatigued on defense.
The visiting Black Bears hung around and hung around some more until the lead was ripe for the picking – then took it and devoured it.
With 5:22 left in the third quarter, a bad dream became a nightmare when Sanford made the decision to run the ball on 4th-and-1 from his team's own 15-yard line. Of course, the nation’s worst-rushing team statistically from a year ago was met by Maine defenders in the backfield and boos from the stands.
“The situations we that put our defense in, in short fields – namely the fourth down. I feel like we needed some juice, needed some offense – our offense to get that push,” Sanford said. “I wanted to give our guys the opportunity to go out and earn that fourth-down conversion. At the end of the day that was a call that was detrimental to the overall course of the game, there’s no doubt about it.”
Maine scored on the very next play to take its first lead of the game and wouldn’t trail again. The Black Bears would end up reeling off 31 straight points after going down 21-0 in the first quarter.
What became more and more concerning for the Hilltoppers as the night wore on was a seemingly inexplicable ability to adapt and overcome:
• A run game which appeared to have improved in the offseason and after totaling 124 yards at Wisconsin finished with just 42 yards on the ground.
• Quarterback Drew Eckels, possibly injured on the last WKU offensive play of the night, was sacked six times one week after being brought down just once.
• Receiver Lucky Jackson had two catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter – then just two receptions for 17 yards after then.
• Western totaled 123 yards of offense and scored twice in its first two offensive possessions. The rest of the night it punted nine times, turned the ball over on downs twice, allowed a defensive touchdown on a scoop-and-score, scored a desperation TD and had a field goal blocked.
• The Hilltoppers went 3 of 16 on third down.
“One thing about this game is you’re gonna have times where you’re gonna take a step back,” WKU junior running back Marquez Trigg said. “It’s not really about you taking a step back it’s how you bounce back off that. We gotta bounce back off of tonight and keep going forward, staying positive.”
The issue with bouncing back for Western Kentucky is the opportunities for wins left on the schedule appears slim. The Tops travel to Louisville (1-1) next and still have Marshall, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech all remaining in the next 10 games.
Sanford’s team has now dropped 7 of 8 with the lone win coming by three points over MTSU in triple overtime. And Western is now 0-2 for the first time since 2011 with the very real possibility of being 0-3 for the first time since that same year.
“Just continue to express that everything’s gonna be alright. Because it is. It’s only Week Two,” WKU senior cornerback and captain DeAndre Farris said about keeping his teammates afloat. “And we got 10 more games left and there’s a lot of games that we can win. Our attitude going forward is just continue to work and stay positive.
“Everything’s gonna be good. Right now it’s just we’re facing adversity. In this game you’re gonna face adversity. So we’re gonna embrace it and go to work tomorrow.”
• Western Kentucky’s 31 points after two games is its fewest since 2011.
• Under Sanford, Western has totaled 957 yards rushing – an average of 63.8 yards per game.
• Western has not recorded a rushing touchdown since Nov. 4 at Vanderbilt. 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 10 games WKU has just four total 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 16.3 points in their last four games.
• After two games, WKU’s offense ranks: 46th in yards per completion (13.2); 47th in passing (264 ypg); 59th with 5 1/2 tackles for loss allowed per game; 78th in team passing efficiency (129.93); 89th on fourth down (25 percent); 90th in completion percentage (56.3); 100th in total offense (347 ypg); 112th with 32 first downs; 113th with 3 1/2 sacks allowed per game and in time of possession (26:24); 119th in scoring (15.5 ppg); 120th in rushing offense (83 ypg) and on third down (25 percent) and 128th in the red zone (25 percent).
• After two games, WKU’s offense ranks: 28th with three sacks per game; 53rd with 6 1/2 tackles for loss per game; 61st with 38 first downs allowed; 68th on fourth down (50 percent); 72nd with 219.5 passing yards allowed per game; 79th on third down (38.7); 81st in team passing efficiency defense (133.96); 88th in total defense (407.5 yards per game allowed); 90th in the red zone (100 percent); 98th against the run (188 yards per game allowed) and 100th with 32.5 points per game allowed.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop