WKU's young offense shows big strides despite latest loss

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Buried deep in a three-game losing streak, having lost four games this season each by three points, it may be hard to find positive building blocks for Western Kentucky moving forward.

But a closer look at Saturday’s 37-34, head-scratching loss to Old Dominion reveals what might arguably be one of WKU’s best offensive games in the Mike Sanford era.

And the plays being made throughout the game’s 60 minutes were all mostly executed by Hilltoppers who will be back in 2019.

“I think it starts with the quarterback position and really the offensive line and running back group,” Sanford said. “That game against ODU spoke to the growth.”

Western’s starting offensive line Saturday included Miles Pate at right tackle, Jordan Meredith at right guard, Seth Joest at center, Tyler Witt at left guard and Parker Howell at left tackle. None of those players are seniors and Howell and Pate are the elder statesmen of the group as redshirt-juniors.

The Tops rushed for 207 yards behind that quintet Saturday and allowed just two sacks on 32 WKU pass attempts.

“Can’t forget that that group right there is 100 percent back next year in addition to the quality players that we’re developing underneath them that are freshmen and sophomores,” Sanford said. “That group’s coming together every week. There’s a lot of belief now in their ability to run the football and the run the football in between the tackles.”

Left tackle Cole Spencer will return to that unit next year as well after suffering a season-ending knee injury earlier this fall. True freshman Mason Brooks has also earned snaps this season.

And while the O-line has continued to solidify itself, WKU has turned to Davis Shanley as its starting quarterback of the present and possibly the long-term. Shanley started his third straight game Saturday and completed 24 of 31 pass attempts for 257 yards.

Another redshirt-freshman, the Georgia native also gained 24 yards with his legs.

Shanley is now completing 70.4 percent of his passes this season.

“When I went back and watched the film of Davis from the Charlotte game (a 40-14 loss), it was four (bad) snaps. It’s easy to wanna correct something right away and make a big dramatic change,” Sanford said. “But you look at the other 74 snaps of the game and he made some really good decisions.

“I’ll say this, I was really proud of how he played (Saturday) – 77 percent completion percentage? And we didn’t run our typical run-pass-option stuff. It was mostly downfield throwing. He played really well.”

Among Shanley’s top targets? All but one, senior tight end Mik’Quan Deane, is expected to be back next year. Junior Lucky Jackson has become the team’s primary target while sophomore Jacquez Sloan has emerged as a big-play threat. Sophomore Kyle Fourtenbary appears intent on continuing the tradition of a reliable, play-making tight end for the program.

Western’s backfield has had the largest rotation under Sanford with seven different running backs getting at least one carry since the start of 2017. Josh Samuel has become the workhorse with a team-leading 62 carries.

And Samuel, you guessed it, is another freshman. He’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He's been complimented by the powerful running of Gino Appleberry and speedy flash of Garland LaFrance

“Josh Samuel and Garland and especially Gino Appleberry, the growth that they’ve been showing week-to-week, and now going for a combined 207 yards rushing (against ODU), that’s the kind of stuff that we need to continue to put together offensively,” Sanford said.

Western’s offensive showing Saturday was certainly positive, but the result, of course, was not. The Hilltoppers have now surrendered a lead in five of their six losses this season (the Wisconsin game is the lone contest in which WKU has not been ahead).

So it’s apparent the WKU attack is on the precipice of getting over the hump – that hump has proven to be quite to large most Saturdays this fall.

“We went back to the film and said it’s about making just a couple more plays,” Sanford said. “That’s how you finish teams off and that’s the theme, is we gotta finish.”

FERBY CLEARED TO PLAY

Sanford said Monday that senior running back D’Andre Ferby has been cleared to play this week.

Ferby (6-1, 230) left the 20-17 loss at Louisville with a shoulder injury after rushing for a season-high 74 yards on 16 carries. He’s missed all four games since.

“Will he go out there and play 80 snaps? That wouldn’t be fair to him, that wouldn’t be fair to any part of coming back,” Sanford said. “Just proud of him, his rehab process and how much he attacked it. He’s looks great. He wants to play. He’s got a look in his eye of a guy that wants to go make an impact and win a football game.”

Ferby has rushed for 1,126 yards over an injury-plagued career and has yet to match his freshman season total of 650 yards on 164 carries.

NOTES

• The Hilltoppers will wear throwback helmets Saturday.

• WKU is 54-29-3 all-time in homecoming games.

• Western Kentucky is now 7-13 under Sanford and 2-11 in its last 13 games.

• The Hilltoppers will be trying to avoid a fourth-straight home defeat for the first time since losing 18 in a row at home from Oct 11, 2008-Oct. 22, 2011.

• Western has not lost five straight conference games since starting Sun Belt Conference play 0-10 from 2009-10.

• 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.

• Florida International (5-2, 3-0 Conference USA) is a 4-point favorite over the Hilltoppers on Saturday.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop