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WKU Football: Assessing the Hilltoppers Through the Season's First Month
Four games are in the books and the Hilltoppers aren't quite who we thought they'd be. At least, not yet.
After a 2-0 start to the season, the Hilltoppers have dropped back-to-back games, closing the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 2-2 record and with WKU fans feeling a lot of things.
On Saturday, the Tops fell to the Troy Trojans, 27-24, after mustering just seven points in the first half and giving up a Hail Mary touchdown at the front of the end zone to give Troy a 10-7 lead into the break.
So, here we sit, in the midst of the first losing streak of the season with the CUSA schedule on the horizon and everyone wanting to take their best shot at the consensus conference favorites.
Before we dive whole-hog into getting set for Thursday’s 100 Miles of Hate clash, lets take a step back and take stock at what where the Tops are - or, at least, where we think they are - after the first month of the season.
The offense isn’t as good as we thought.
Whether it be a new offensive coordinator, injuries in the wide receiver room, having too high of expectations or something else, this year’s WKU team just isn’t as good as we thought through four games.
Saturday served as the culmination of those frustrations.
In the first half against Troy, the Tops went three-and-out in three of their final four possessions. The only possession in that stretch that didn’t end in a three-and-out ended after two plays on a Malachi Corley fumble.
WKU did muster three touchdowns in their five second-half possessions, including some more Hilltopper-like scoring drives (77 yards in eight plays, 80 yards in five plays) but a 17-7 deficit proved too much to over come.
Overall to start the year, the Tops have been outgained in three of their first four games and have yet to eclipse over 500 yards of total offense, something WKU opponents have now done three times.
The running game is, essentially, non-existent.
Pop quiz: Who is the Hilltoppers’ leading rusher on the year and how many total yards do they have?
That would be Davion Ervin-Poindexter, with 101 yards on 21 carries.
No, that’s not DEP’s total from Saturday. Or from any other individual game. That’s his stat line through four games this year.
Markese Stepp also has 21 carries, for 88 yards. He’s also the only running back on the roster with a touchdown so far.
The third leading rusher is Austin Reed.
Compare WKU’s season-long rushing production to how top rushers have done against WKU in each of their first four games:
USF: Byrum Brown, 25 carries for 160 yards. If you want USF’s best RB performance that day, it was from Nay’Quan Wright, who logged 17 carries for 111 yards.
HCU: Champ Dozier, 18 carries for 80 yards
Ohio State: TreVeyon Henderson, 13 carries for 88 yards
Troy: Kimani Vidal, 26 carries for 156 yards
WKU’s leading rusher on Saturday was Elijah Young, with five carries for nine yards.
At the conclusion of play Saturday, the Tops boasted the 10th worst rushing attack in the country, averaging just 84.3 yards on the ground a game.
Running the football has been an issue for years now and this year, it feels worse than it has ever been.
There is talent across the roster. Something just isn’t clicking.
I’m going to do the bad sports writer thing and say up front: I don’t have a lot of quantifiable data here to back up what I’m going to say, it’s purely based on eye test.
But, I don’t have to tell you that WKU has a talented quarterback and WR1 duo. I don’t have to tell you about Donut Evans, Quantavious Leslie, Upton Stout, Kendrick Simpkins (who is becoming a one-man wrecking crew all his own), River Helms…well, you get the picture.
Even with the statistical defensive woes we’ve chronicled - both this morning and throughout the first month - the Topper defense has had, I’d argue, more standout moments than the offense has and are not the reason they enter CUSA play at .500.
There just seems to be something off about the Tops, again, especially on offense. WKU isn’t going to be topping recruiting charts anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no talent on the roster - WKU wouldn’t have been able to mount a comeback effort and only lose to Troy by three without talent.
It just feels like the talent isn’t being used in the right way, and that’s disheartening.
Goals are still in reach for the season (even if other’s aren’t).
Saturday’s loss to Troy almost assuredly snapped any hope the Tops had of competing for the G5’s New Year’s Six, a goal put in a box and shoved on the tippity-top shelf after last week’s Ohio State loss.
But, even if that’s no longer in reach, a majority of this year’s goals still are.
CUSA play kicks off Thursday and a perfect conference record can still be achieved. So too can the program’s first non-Jeff Brohm FBS-era conference title be won.
Running the conference table would also get the Tops to 10 regular season wins, another feat the Tops haven’t done as an FBS program under a non-Jeff Brohm head coach.
Sure, we may look back on the Troy loss in a similar way we look back at the 2015 loss to Indiana (also by three points, also on the road) as a “that team really could have done something special” but does that hinder how you think about the 2015 team that finished No. 24 in the AP Poll?
If I may cross sports for a moment: The Rick Stansbury era taught us that wins over Power programs are cool, but so are conference titles and banners.
A 2023 CUSA Champion banner will mean a lot more in five years than “that one time we beat Troy on the road in September” will.
It might not be pretty or sexy or pick your adjective, but the number one, topline goal was “CUSA title or bust.” That’s still very much in play and, while Liberty is looking very, very good in the first month of the Jamey Chadwell era, the Tops have a couple of get-right games coming up to prepare for the most-likely CUSA title game preview.
I know I threw a lot at you this morning, and came up with very few answers. This was an exercise in thinking out loud and trying to determine how and what I feel about WKU at this present moment.
And, if I had to come up with an answer, I don’t think I’d be able to give you one. And that’s okay. As I said to end the last segment, the Tops have three games - MTSU, La Tech and Jacksonville State - before Liberty. Not that any of those teams deserve to be overlooked, but WKU isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, considered on the same “level” as those three and should start looking better.
If they don’t and they limp into the Liberty game, then it’s time to hit the panic button, and fast.
But, for now, I’ll continue to watch the story of the 2023 Hilltoppers unfold. It could end in joy, it could end in heartbreak, but this is a team not yet willing to show its true self.
At least, I hope it hasn’t.