This one was, undoubtedly, the toughest.
Western Kentucky lost another football game Saturday. It was a defeat that came at the hands of visiting Old Dominion, 37-34, giving the Hilltoppers (1-6, 0-3 Conference USA) their fourth three-point loss of the season.
But this setback also came after three untimed downs that followed what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown and subsequent defensive collapse all with less than two minutes to play. It left the Tops befuddled and bereaving.
“Honestly, we just need to stay together. We can’t be pointing fingers at each other,” WKU quarterback Davis Shanley said. “Because, honestly, we pulled together as a team today and I think a lot of people saw that. I think we put some good stuff on film, we put some good stuff on the field, but we just have to do a little bit more and we have to find what that little bit is.”
Shanley played exceptional football and gave his team a chance to win by throwing for 257 yards on 24 of 31 passing. He completed two TD throws, rushed for 24 yards and, most-importantly, led an 80-yard scoring drive starting with 5 1/2 minutes left on the clock that put WKU up 34-27.
But it was all for naught.
The Monarchs, 0-fer in four tries trying to beat their East Division rivals since 2014, easily covered 79 yards in 1:23 to tie the game at 34-all. Two failed field goal attempts, one of which was returned 85 yards to the WKU 15, and a Nick Rice 26-yard field goal later ODU had won 37-34.
“We went back down there and put together a four-minute drive as an offense and ran behind our offensive line, ate up an ungodly amount of clock and put ourselves in a position to win a football game. We gotta win a game in that case,” WKU’s second-year coach Mike Sanford said. “You go down and you go up 34-27, you leave them well short of a minute-40? We gotta win the football game. We gave ourselves a chance to win."
Truly, the final series of events, for all the wackiness, made it easy to forget other key moments that may have led to the latest Western demise, one that has Sanford’s team on the brink of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
Late in the first quarter the Hilltoppers were faced with a 4th-and-2 at the ODU 29 and out of a timeout running back Gino Appleberry was stuffed for no gain. The Monarchs scored on the following series to take a 14-7 lead.
Later in the evening, as the clock ticked toward the 10-minute mark, WKU clung to a 27-19 lead. Western defensive end Juwuan Jones sacked ODU quarterback Blake LaRussa and the ball popped free.
Linebacker Ben Holt scooped it and raced 20 yards the other direction before stepping out of bounds at the ODU 28. Western Kentucky’s offense took advantage (or didn't) of that momentum thusly:
• On first down running back Garland LaFrance lost two yards.
• On second down Shanley was sacked for a loss of nine yards.
• On third down Shanley threw an incomplete pass.
• On fourth down a WKU delay of game penalty was declined and the Tops punted – Alex Rinella’s kicked sailed almost out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
• The drive lasted one minute and 20 seconds.
• Old Dominion, of course, took the ensuing possession 80 yards the other way, scored on Kesean Strong’s two-yard run and tied the game on LaRussa’s two-point conversion pass to Cornell Hendrick.
Lastly, after WKU had gone up 34-27 with 1:32 to play, Old Dominion took the ball at its own 21 and completed two separate passes of 31 yards each all the way down to the 6. LaRussa then found Travis Fulgham with nine seconds the clock making it 27-25 and setting up the last bit of insanity for the night.
The Hilltoppers are now 2-11 in their last 13 with a three-point, triple-overtime win over Middle Tennessee and an eight-point win at Ball State during that stretch. They’re 0-3 at home and 1-6 in their last seven league games.
Florida International (5-2, 3-0 CUSA), the East Division leader, comes to Bowling Green this week looking to extend WKU’s misery. The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, will have continue to do some soul searching to try figure out a way to get back over the hump.
“The position that we are at, a lot of teams they break apart and get upset and angry at being 1-6. Some people never been 1-6 in their lives. They don’t know how to handle it,” Jones said. “But the way, I believe, you handle it is you stick together and you practice even harder, watch the film, see your mistakes, fix ‘em and then come back ready to work during the week for the next game.”
Western Kentucky will be looking to avoid a 1-7 record for the first time since the 2010 team was 1-8. It is also hoping not to be 0-4 at home for the first time since that same year.
Through 20 games, Sanford’s 7-13 mark is one game better than Willie Taggart’s 6-14 start, although the trajectories of those two coaches are in stark contrast – the former can turn the tide in the coming weeks.
“I think it’s important, I said it in the locker room, that we have to look ourselves in the mirror, starting with me,” Sanford said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last six weeks, doing everything I can because I love these kids, I love these players and I wanna put them in positions so they can have that postgame celebration in that locker room. We deserve that. We just didn’t get it done.”
• Western’s offense now ranks: 30th with a completion percentage of 65, 42nd in passing (253.4 yards per game), 51st with 5.6 tackles for loss allowed per game, 67th with 150 first downs, 70th on third down (38.8 percent), 75th in passing efficiency (132.7), 84th in time of possession (28:58), 90th in total (393.1 yards per game), 107th with 10.8 yards per completion, 111th in rushing (119. yards per game), 117th in the red zone (75 percent) and 122nd in scoring (20.1 points per game).
• Western’s defense now ranks: 58th in passing efficiency (127.1), 69th on third down (38.9 percent), 79th with 1.9 sacks per game, 80th in the red zone (84.6 percent), 82nd by allowing 154 first downs and against the run (172.1 yards per game allowed), 84th with 5.4 tackles for loss per game, 86th against the pass (237.7 yards per game allowed) and 89th in total (409.9 yards allowed per game).
• WKU safety Drell Greene is 10th nationally having recovered two fumbles.
• Western’s defensive back Ta’Corian Darden is 22nd nationally with 1.3 passes defended per game.
• WKU junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson is 79th nationally with 4.7 receptions per game.
• WKU senior tight end Mik’Quan Deane is 77th nationally with four receiving touchdowns.
• WKU linebacker Ben Holt is 76th nationally with eight tackles per game.
• WKU wide receiver Jacque Sloan is 95th nationally with 15.3 yards per reception.
• Western Kentucky is now 7-13 under Sanford and 2-11 in its last 13 games.
• The Hilltoppers lost a third-straight home defeat for the first time since 2012.
• WKU is scoring 23.6 points per game and rushing for 81.5 yards per game in the Sanford era.
• The 13 losses in the Sanford era have come by a margin of 11.7 points.
• Western Kentucky’s first seven opponents are now a combined 24-27 and it’s next five opponents are a combined 17-18.
• The Tops have one win against a 3-5 team and six losses to teams who are 21-22 combined.
• Attendance on Saturday was 13,269 giving WKU a season average of 16,599.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop