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WKU Football: What Went Right and What Went Wrong in WKU's 31-10 Win vs. MTSU
After putting MTSU in their place for a fifth-straight time, the Hilltoppers are 1-0 in CUSA play with a lot to like and a lot to learn.
Western Kentucky is off to a 1-0 start to their CUSA schedule and were able to exercise some of the ghosts that haunted them over the last two weeks of the non-conference schedule in Thursday night’s 31-10 win over Middle Tennessee.
The score was not as close as the final score felt, mostly due to the continued woes of the Hilltopper offense.
Take, for example, Austin Reed, who threw for 233 yards on 24-for-38 passing in the first half, only to finish the game with 297 passing yards, completing 30 of his 52 pass attempts.
But, on the flip side, MTSU should have scored at least two more touchdowns, with them turning the ball over on downs inside the Hilltopper five in the third quarter and an eventual game-sealing interception at the WKU two yard line in the fourth quarter.
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Big Picture - by Fletcher Keel
I think we are far enough into the year that it’s worth saying: I’m officially worried about the WKU offense. Thursday marked just the eighth time in Reed’s Hilltopper career that he failed to throw for at least 300 yards, doing so in a fourth-straight game.
But it’s not just the numbers, it’s how the offense looked. Instead of the high-powered offense we assumed we’d see with the return of Reed and Malachi Corley, it’s been a more methodical, dink-and-dunk kind of offense that, when it isn’t working is borderline infuriating to watch.
And there were a lot of moments when it wasn’t working.
Reed and Corley didn’t seem to be on the same page Thursday, with some key third-down targets to Corley being misfired, whether above his head, behind him or both. Something wasn’t right. However, he did lead all receivers, catching eight balls for 81 yards, but he could have easily eclipsed 100 yards receiving if not for an out of sync night.
I’m also tiring of the running back by committee approach, though a couple of guys - Elijah Young and L.T. Sanders - finally broke through in the second quarter: The former with a touchdown rush and a sick hurdle of an MTSU defender and the latter with a 56-yard rush straight up the gut in the closing seconds of the game.
What Went Right - by Fletcher Keel
For all the woes and bellyaching of the Hilltopper defense over the last two weeks, they deserve nothing but praise for their performance on Thursday.
WKU allowed just 29 total yards of offense in the first quarter and just 46 rushing yards in the first half, 23 of which came on the final play of the second quarter.
MT was able to find some success in the third quarter, striking for the only touchdown of the game and holding the ball for over 10 minutes, but the Tops’ defense stood up when it mattered most, with every post-touchdown drive for the rest of the game ending in a turnover, be it on downs or via the interception.
The dual threat of Nicholas Vattiato did not come to true fruition tonight, with the Tops defense looking the most prepared they had for a quarterback with that particular skill set this year. WKU’s defensive front had hands deflecting balls all night long, Upton Stout hit a couple of guys to Portland and Takulve Williams (12 tackles, INT) and Bryson Washington (seven tackles, INT) had coming out parties, along with strong nights from Stout and Donut Evans (nine tackles).
I’m not ready to crown the Tops’ defense as 100% fixed, but this was a really good performance to get their feet back underneath them before they have to take on Smoke Harris and a capable Louisiana Tech offense next week.
What Went Wrong - by Devin Stewart
It’s really hard to complain when a team wins 31-10 and I’ve got some money in my pocket after, but I will give it my best shot.
As good as the WKU defense was Thursday night, they struggled in one major area: When MT began running up-tempo. It seemed as if they became winded after a couple of quick plays, especially the young men in the trenches. The Tops have got to be able to either stop teams quickly in up tempo offenses before the defense gets winded or they need more conditioning drills to prepare for those teams. Opposing offensive coordinators are like sharks and when a team struggles with up tempo, its blood in the water.
On the offensive side of the ball, as Fletcher touched on earlier, it wasn’t a highlight of an evening for Austin Reed. While a great QB, he made some poor decisions despite getting away with almost all of them, while at least one other was an interception. He made some throws that were very risqué under pressure. Sometimes these plays work, while others in the future could be detrimental to the team.
The blame for Austin Reed having to make these bad throws can fall one of two ways: The offensive line, or the wide receivers. The answer is both. When a team is unable to have a successful run game (for most of the game until the fourth quarter) and the quarterback is throwing awkward passes under pressure, something is going on up front. The flip side of the issue is the wide receivers. Between the true wide receivers and the tight end(s) there were to many passes dropped.
Finally, WKU needs to develop a consistent, not just when they’re up in the fourth quarter. This team is almost designed like a “Tom Brady Patriots”, where you really didn’t see any part of the offense that didn’t involve Tom Brady. So running backs didn’t get many straight hand offs, it was usually a bubble screen pass from the back field or some other route. Similar to how MTSU started running the ball in the second half. It gave Vattiato some breathing room and allowed him to make some passes or run for a first down. MTSU’s offense opened up and there was a few minutes in the second half where it felt like a comeback was on the horizon.
Red Threads - by Fletcher Keel
Some final stray thoughts before we leave you to your weekend.
As Devin noted, for a good chunk of the second half, there was a sense that a collapse was imminent. But then, the WKU defense would make a great play and return hope that the offense would put the game out of reach. Something they did eventually do, it just took a while.
File under “Stat’s That Exist But Do Not Matter”: WKU’s leading rusher, L.T. Sanders, had more rushing yards (83) than Corley did as WKU’s leading receiver (81). The last time that happened was last October against UAB, when Sanders rushed for 120 yards and Corley caught for 77.
After his touchdown reception in the second quarter, Easton Messer had just one more target - in the final touchdown drive of the game in the fourth.
I bring up the above point to make the following point: Messer has become a legitimate first string wide receiver and needs to be used more. On this team, he has potential to become the No. 2 option behind Corley and needs to be utilized more. He had the second most number of catches (four) and third most targets (five) but was mostly invisible during the parts of the game where WKU’s offense was struggling the most. He needs to be more involved and, assuming he stays and doesn’t test the portal waters, he could start 2024 as the WR1 to help break in whoever will come in after Reed.
WKU’s fifth-straight win over MTSU marks their longest winning streak in the series since they won seven straight from 1928-1934.
I’d like to officially bid adieu to WKU Football on CBS Sports Network for 2023 (pending a spot in the CUSA title game). Goodbye to your awful broadcasters and to your too-open iris that makes everything look way more vibrant than it needs to. May WKU have as few football games on the network moving forward.
Looking ahead: Here’s who the Tops’ next three opponents have this week
Louisiana Tech: at UTEP Friday, Sept. 29
Jacksonville State: 35-28 overtime win at Sam Houston State
Liberty: BYE - Next game vs. Sam Houston State 10/5