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WKU Football: Grading the Tops' 27-24 Loss at Troy
It's definitely frustrating to lose what many would consider a winnable game against a quality opponent, so what the heck happened Saturday?
Western Kentucky is now firmly out of the New Years Six conversation, if they even were in it after a 63-10 drubbing at Ohio State.
Saturday’s result was much more respectable on the scoreboard, but ultimately, losing 27-24 to Troy leaves much to be desired from WKU fans, certainly considering WKU was considered a clear favorite to win Conference USA heading in to 2023 and a NY6 dark horse.
Now it’s incredibly fair to say that maybe WKU (2-2, 0-0 CUSA) is not even the favorite in CUSA. Perhaps that distinction now falls slightly to Liberty, although WKU is still certainly a co-favorite.
Western Kentucky struggled mightily to move the ball on Troy’s excellent defense.
It’s been an odd set of four games to start the season. WKU’s offense has not been as good as anticipated, Austin Reed has not looked as good as he did last year, and the defense struggles to stop nearly any legitimate threat an opposing offense poses. (ed. note - despite the defense’s struggles to stop the run, especially, the Hilltoppers are still allowing only 24.3 points per game, not counting the Ohio State game. Even factoring in the 63 points allowed to the Buckeyes, WKU is allowing 31.8 points per game, the 55th best mark in the nation.)
Obviously, WKU struggled to even be in a game against a team they easily could have beaten if they had found ways to slow them down defensively or if they had been able to muster a decent day offensively. Either could have worked. They could do neither, and now we try to explain what happened.
Grading the Keys to Victory
WKU’s Explosiveness vs. Troy’s Steadiness: F+
This was exactly what I was afraid of. The only reason this isn’t a pure “F” is the defense was able to force some turnovers and get some sacks. Otherwise, WKU would not have been within a couple of scores of Troy. 288 total yards, no running plays longer than six yards, and only a few pass plays that provided any kind of chunk play really made this a difficult game to find tons of hope in. It certainly felt like Troy was the more explosive team and not WKU. With over 500 yards of offense and a couple of receivers posting up on WKU’s undersized secondary, Troy seemed like the elite offense.
For the Love of All Things Holy, STOP THE RUN!: D+
This was not utter failure, but it was certainly exactly what didn’t need to happen. My benchmark in my Keys was 150 yards for Kimani Vidal. Vidal not only had 156 yards, but he had two touchdowns, added 58 receiving yards, and his backup Damien Taylor was remotely effective with 28 yards. That is not exactly stopping the run. However, WKU had moments where they were able to make life difficult for Troy. So yes, failing grade, but not a dumpster fire considering how good Vidal is anyway.
Junk it Up on Defense: B
Actually, this is what kept WKU in the game. As I predicted, WKU was not able to cover Troy straight up. The Tops threw the kitchen sink at them, generally sending more than four and sometimes sending in everybody and seeing what happened. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes the Tops got busted for a big play. Honestly, anyone taking deep issue with the defense needs to reevaluate their perspective. Sure, the defense needs to stop giving up 500 yards per game and surrendering over 200 via the ground. However, the defense kept WKU in the game. It was clearly the offense that needed to provide something.
Austin Reed Needs to be Austin Reed: C-
Reed (24-40, 275 yards, 2 touchdowns) was far from horrendous. However, the Austin Reed of 2023 has not been the “helmet sticker,” #ReedForHeisman, NFL draft pick, leading the country in passing Austin Reed from 2022. It could be receiver injuries, O-Line injuries, or it could just be that things just haven’t clicked into place.
Special Teams Must be Sharp: D-
Lucas Carneiro and Cory Munson did their parts, but a KD Hutchinson muffed punt and an uncharacteristically short length punting day for Tom Ellard left a chunk of invisible yards out there in favor of Troy. With miscues like that in a game where WKU got dominated in everything but turnovers, it was a miracle that WKU stayed within three points of victory. Tom Ellard now has two of four games averaging under 40 yards per punt, and his season average now sits at 40.7 yards per punt, which puts him at 50th of 69 eligible punters according to the NCAA’s punting statistics page. Ellard had a nice year last year despite clearly having a leg that needs to develop. Thus far, he has not had the protection (notice the near blocks), nor has he had the bounces that all seemingly went his way last season en route to a Freshman All-American campaign.
Reed was not the problem in this game. He was unproductive in the first half, but it did open up in the second half, ultimately amassing just under 300 yards passing with no running game, including his 1B option at running back not dressing. In addition, at least three receivers that have played meaningful snaps for WKU in their career missed Saturday’s game once again. He also faced relentless pressure, somehow only giving up one TFL and one sack in addition to taking four hits. Again, sincere and utter credit to Austin for being incredible at evading pressure. He is the best in WKU red that I have ever seen at that particular skill.
That being said, Reed has really been missing his targets this year. Is that fair to say? In my opinion, thus far, he has not been as accurate as last season. He is now only throwing 63.1 percent of his passes to completion. That is slightly below average in college football in terms of completion percentage. He was below 60% in this game. Two touchdowns and no turnovers ultimately help him have a fairly average grade, but Austin Reed must step up his game for myriad reasons (team success, personal success, draft prospects).
Running Back: F
I hate to be so negative, but 26 total yards? Net rushing of 15? Markese Stepp was out, forcing Elijah Young (who mysteriously started in his place) and L.T. Sanders to step into roles they have not been asked to perform thus far. Given that Stepp was out, I would be willing to provide a bit of a pass, but there was just no production from the run game in this one. I’m not sure what else to say, other than the coaches need to give them some opportunity to get a rhythm. They were only involved in touching the football on 10 of 53 plays. That’s a sad number of plays, but more importantly, if the Tops had skimped on one more rushing attempt, the Topper RBs would have had single digit touches! That’s ludicrous.
Wide Receiver: C
If it wasn’t for the two fumbles, this would be much higher. Overall, the job the receivers are doing is really admirable when they are missing three huge pieces (Michael Mathison, Blue Smith, Dalvin Smith). However, in a one possession game, you can’t have one position group have all of the turnovers that ultimately resulted in 14 points (Corley’s fumble did not directly result in a touchdown for Troy). Turnovers removed, Corley had a heck of an afternoon, and Easton Messer has solidified himself as a starting caliber producer for the Tops. Believe it or not, the redshirt freshman is now 13 yards from the team lead in receiving yards.
Tight End: C-
River Helms did show up in the stat sheet with an important reception, but ultimately he and his cohorts were virtually invisible. Incredibly telling are OC Drew Hollinshead’s comments about his time with Mike Leach, though: They never recruited a tight end in his eight years with Leach. Perhaps he just doesn’t know what to do with such a thing as a tight end. Frankly, in a bunched up game, perhaps going to the tight end would open up the middle of the field.
Offensive Line: D
Huge credit still needs to go to this line for only giving up one sack all year. I’ll say that first, but other than that, this was a poor performance from the fellas up front. 13 net rushing yards? Two first downs on the ground? The most QBH and tied for the most sacks all year? Less than 300 yards of total offense with the QB being uncomfortable to the tune of less than 60% accuracy? It was a rough game. One thing I’ve noticed is Mark Goode has been suspect the last two games. There have been multiple whiffs, and he played a part in several of the negative plays, including the sack on Reed. It still remains to be seen how good this unit is, but if they can clean up the mental mistakes, I think they become as elite as any other unit in WKU history.
Defensive Line: B-
Honestly, I think the defense had a pretty good game, especially considering how poorly this defense has looked at times. The Tops forced turnovers and kept a powerful running back and a quality QB from completely running away with the game. Were there some missed tackles? Yes absolutely. But when you look big picture, this loss was solely on the offense. Up front, the Tops produced five sacks (7 TFL), kept Kimani Vidal remotely in check (something I thought could be much worse), and ultimately had some presence up front. Troy’s O-Line was having fits keeping WKU’s pressure out of the backfield on plenty of plays. Deante McCray and Niko Cooper and others that have really needed to produce did some good things Saturday.
JaQues Evans had five tackles, but he has not been as visible as he was earlier in the season and all of last year. Obviously, that’s probably on the opposition focusing on him and making sure he doesn’t beat them. It is definitely opening other opportunities for others. However, when picking through the production numbers, a lot of the statistical impact in Saturday’s game was from the defensive line and the defensive backs. Many of the missed tackles were linebackers.
I say this all the time: Linebackers need numbers in order to be effective, and there weren’t many numbers. Also, a defense without incredible linebackers is a defense susceptible to everything. Thus far, that is proving to be true about WKU. WKU allows 500 yards per game defensively. WKU is 127th in yards allowed per game. It must get better, or WKU can forget any hope for any banners being hung up in the offseason.
Defensive Back: C-
First of all, Troy’s offensive gurus were absolute idiots for going after Upton Stout. Yes, he got smoked a couple of times, but he nearly got his hands on two balls for interceptions (2 PBU), forced a fumble, and had seven tackles. In my opinion, Troy missed opportunities because they were focusing on destroying Stout instead of shredding the rest of WKU’s questionable secondary. I digress…
WKU’s secondary was absolutely suspect, and the lack of size caught up to WKU. This has plagued WKU for a decade. There have not been generally sizable DBs on The Hill in years. There have been a few, but Stout is undersized. Others are miniscule compared to a 6’4” receiver with any vertical. There is something to that for sure. The Hail Mary effort in general was just pitiful and made the WKU defender look like a high schooler. Here’s more of the issue for me: That ball was in the air several seconds. Why did no one react to the football? I don’t mind a long touchdown reception. Things happen. UTSA posted up their huge receivers on WKU the last few years. So be it! But compete! WKU’s DBs jogged down with the Troy receivers, stayed on their own men, and the larger receiver went 1-on-1 on a man six inches shorter than him. Of course he caught it.
Special Teams: D
We already covered this, but turnovers on special teams are absolutely disastrous. Generally, that means you just went from stopping a team (or they just scored a touchdown) and you hand the ball right back to their offense. One way or another, Tom Ellard needs to get some hang time, length, or bounces on his punts. He’s done a good job with the net yardage, but my goodness, that extra three or four yards per punt adds up quickly.
Head Coaching: D
There wasn’t anything tangible Tyson Helton did this game that made me want to climb into the TV and shake his neck like last week, but I do think there were some things that were frustrating (like wasting a timeout on special teams when a five-yard penalty is not significantly damaging). I also think in general, he can’t allow his offense to only give the running backs the ball 10 times. You can’t rush a total of 13 times, including a sack. Reed’s number was only called twice on designed run plays. Seriously? What are we doing here, folks? I don’t care if Troy’s defensive line had Goliath on it, you have to run the ball more than ten times a game!!! Maybe a clock control offense wouldn’t have ran 81 plays to your 53.
Maybe, just maybe, you make up three points by running some clock to end the half instead of giving up seven points. Now, I saw plenty of people blaming Helton for the extra touchdown at the end of the half. First of all, he gave Troy the ball with 30 seconds left. What was the realistic chance that they really go and score a touchdown? WKU’s defense did a good job to force a heave and they just made a nice play to end the half. WKU handled the possession before the touchdown fairly reasonably, and at 3rd-and-4, they certainly weren’t in the “ahh screw it let’s just run the ball on 3rd-and-forever” area of play calling to end a half. That was unfortunate, but again, a short punt that allowed Troy to only need a few yards to get within heaving distance for the Hail Mary was really one of the bigger reasons Troy had that opportunity at all. If Troy got the ball at the 30 instead of the 44, would they have been so aggressive in their 30 leftover seconds? Probably not.
Here’s the other thing that’s on Helton: Plenty of people have observed that it doesn’t seem like WKU has “it”. The Tops don’t seem to have chemistry, don’t seem to play for each other all the time, don’t seem be awake for quarters at a time. At some point, that’s on the head coach to stir up the troops to get them focused for 60 and not 25. If WKU had been focused for 50-60 minutes per game instead of taking eight of their quarters off so far, WKU could be 3-1 and feeling like the best team in Conference USA. Instead, we’re wondering if WKU is going to make a conference championship appearance at this point.
Offensive Coaching: F
I think it’s about time to call it out: WKU’s offensive coaching has not put the Tops in position to be the offense they were supposed to be. Perhaps attrition and losing an OC and several assistants per year has finally drained WKU’s coaching staff down to some guys that need some more experience before taking the limelight. WKU’s running backs barely were involved, period. How could they possibly produce much more than 40 yards regardless of the quality of their production with only ten touches? Everybody knows most RBs need touches to even out their averages. They’re probably not getting exactly five yards every single time they touch it. Sometimes they need a couple before they even gain more than ten total yards.
On top of that, WKU’s receivers (including tight ends) have not really been in great positions, either. There have been some bright moments, and there were two drives where WKU looked like it knew what it was doing (opening drive and the touchdown drive). Other than that, it was a train wreck. Several drives were absolutely hopeless. Several times WKU got called for inexcusable management penalties (too many men on the field on offense TWICE?!?).
Honestly, not one position group (besides the offensive line when looking big picture) has done what it was supposed to yet this season. You have a QB returning, a deep receiver room, the deepest RB room in years, and tight ends with no expectations. Yet each of those position groups have been less than expected.
Why is the WKU offense the biggest disappointment with this team?
Defensive Coaching: C
First of all, the Tops’ technique stripping the ball this year has been excellent. They are violent when it comes to coming after the ball. However, in this game, the hideous tackling must be accounted for in the coaching scorecard. Troy may not have had 450 yards to speak of (and WKU would have won handily) if the Toppers had been able to tackle an injured walk-on.
Big picture and strategy-wise, Tyson Summers impresses me. He clearly does not have the horses to have an elite defense, and he doesn’t have an elite defensive line to create problems on its own. Heck, he has some DBs that know how to produce big plays, but as every-down guys, they’re struggling. What he’s doing is junking things up and creating chaos and living with the results. Troy’s offensive line is awful, so take some of this with a grain of salt, but WKU’s front was able to come up with five sacks and seven total negative plays. Several other times, the pressure forced an errant throw or forced a scramble or hasty decision.
Tyson Summers was overall a B or better in terms of his play calling and setting up his unit to be as successful as possible, but the missed tackles dragged it down for me. Part of coaching is obviously making decisions in the game, but another huge part is having players that make fundamentally sound decisions with their movements, including tackling. The Tops were not great at that portion of the game.
Honestly, the end result wasn’t bad. Troy is a good team that should compete in the Sun Belt. With them losing already, they may be out of the race, but regardless, that’s a good football team that could easily compete for a championship. Losing by three is not shameful, by any means.
However, the way it looked was just…depressing.
WKU had no business being within a score in that game. Troy dominated in virtually every way, but because WKU was able to pull off some timely turnovers and get a touchdown against a team that didn’t really need a stop, the score looks much closer than it really was.
No matter how you slice it, WKU was pretty well dominated in this one:
Time of Possession: 39-21
Total Yards: 521-288
Rushing Yards: 172-13
Third Down: 2-of-10 vs 9-of-18
However, red zone defense and forced turnovers kept WKU in it.
On the one hand, looking really bad is incredibly depressing. However, WKU has had a ton of injuries and continues to shuffle offensive players in and out. Those guys should be coming back very soon. The Tops have also clearly not lived up to their potential and are still a viable football team with a ton of upside if they can get things remotely in balance.
Also, if there was one game that it was okay to lose, this would be it. Why? It’s a non-conference game on the road, and it’s not a disaster to put up an L in this one. This would be the equivalent of your favorite NFL team losing to a non-conference opponent on the road: It’s just not as impactful as losing a game in your conference and/or losing one at home.
So overall, yeah, the Tops aren’t looking sharp. You know what, though?
None of this has truly mattered up to this point. Non-conference is window dressing unless it affects your bowl eligibility or your New Years Six status. WKU was incredibly unlikely to be competitive in the NY6 picture, so WKU just needs to win four conference games, and the non-conference will have truly meant nothing but bowl positioning. There are worse things in this world to fret about.
Beating Middle Tennessee. Winning conference games. Winning at home. Setting the tone for the rest of the Conference USA slate. Settling in and getting better on offense, defense, and special teams.
WKU draws MTSU, a competent archrival that is incredibly likely to absolutely want to kill Western Kentucky. WKU has dominated the MUTS in recent memory, evening up a series that once was held firmly in Middle’s grasp.
All that matters now is Thursday at 6:30.