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WKU Football: What Went Right and What Went Wrong in WKU’s 28-23 Win Over Against Sam Houston St.
Please leave your non-bowling shoes at the front desk, and don't forget to grab them on your way out.
It was a little more difficult than it probably should have, but the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are bowl eligible for the 11th time in their FBS history (counting non-pandemic seasons) after defeating Sam Houston State, 28-23, Saturday afternoon on Senior Day.
The result could have gone either way, with the Bearkats driving in the final minute to take a lead, a drive that was ended by a Desmyn Baker interception in the end zone with 38 seconds to play.
For as disappointing a season 2023 has been, being bowl eligible is a nice (even if truly the tiniest) consolation. If all goes right, this season can still end with eight wins, and those extra couple of weeks of practice can’t possibly be a bad thing, right?
Big Picture - by Fletcher Keel
While there’s still one more game to go before the bowl season, clinching bowl eligibility feels kind of like the period at the end of the sentence that is this season. I suppose next week at FIU will serve as something of a post script or a coda.
Tired of my writing analogies yet?
It was one of the ugliest Hilltopper wins in recent memory, but it was also a win, and a win in a close game, something the Hilltoppers haven’t necessarily been great at doing. Even with Austin Reed turning the ball over five times, even with still not completely containing a run-capable opposing quarterback, even with allowing SHSU to march down the field, the Tops found ways to win on both sides of the ball.
I don’t necessarily want to call Saturday’s win a “complete” effort, because it wasn’t totally that, but in some ways it feels as close as we’ve seen in some time.
If a similar effort (sans the turnovers) were levied last week, or against Jacksonville State or maybe even against Liberty, the Tops would be playing in two weeks time.
But, they weren’t and they’re not. All we have left is a date with FIU before learning of the bowl destination.
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What Went Right - by Fletcher Keel
Despite giving up a handful of chunk plays, the Hilltopper defense is not only what kept WKU in the game, but as we discussed earlier, is what sealed the deal.
Most notably, the Tops kept the Bearkats under 100 rushing yards, an area that has been the biggest consistent struggle for the unit all season. Though struggles did continue in containing SHSU quarterback Keegan Shoemaker, he was kept in check to the tune of 34 yards on 10 carries. Running back John Gentry led the way for SHSU, rushing for 41 yards on 15 carries.
In total, WKU held SHSU to just 2.8 rushing yards per attempt.
It was an exceptionally strong start to the game for the Topper defense, who allowed three-straight three-and-outs and just nine total yards in the first three drives of the game.
After allowing a 90-yard touchdown drive following Austin Reed’s first interception of the day, the defense had a short turnaround, with a Hilltopper fumble at midfield putting them not only on short rest, but with their backs against the wall.
And they almost wiggled their way out of it, forcing what appeared to be an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth down, but a holding penalty against Takulve Williams gave SHSU a fresh set of downs.
However, even then it took the Bearkats for more plays to score, three of which came from inside the one yard line.
It was that bend-don’t-break mentality that was witnessed throughout most of the game, culminating in Baker’s game-sealing interception to send the Tops into bowl season.
What Went Wrong - by Alex Sherfield
Austin Reed turned in his worst statistical performance of his Hilltopper career, throwing for four interceptions and being responsible for a lost fumble.
Entering play Saturday, Reed had only ever thrown multiple interceptions once - when he threw a pair of picks at Auburn last year.
However, Reed was able to put together one of his stronger number days outside of the turnover column, throwing for the most yards this season (392) and his fifth game of three or more touchdowns (3) on his second-most efficient day (68.3%) of the year.
The Hilltoppers should have scored on their opening possession, as they drove 45 yards on four plays in less than a minute, but Reed’s first pick - a tight-window throw to Easton Messer along the sideline - ended the threat of a drive.
While the Tops answered back with the game’s first touchdown on the next series, they were stopped three-straight times after that (punt, interception, fumble) and left the window open for SHSU to take their first lead, as they turned the successive turnovers into points.
Outside of what ended up being the decisive 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the Hilltoppers totaled 86 yards of total offense in the second half.
Red Threads - by Fletcher Keel
Some final stray thoughts as we can see the end of the 2023 football season in our sights.
Runner up for What Went Right: Getting the stud wide receivers the ball. Both Malachi Corley (171) and Dalvin Smith (125) eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark and were rewarded with touchdowns.
In a year that was supposed to be fodder for Corley’s draft tape, this was only the third game in which he went over 100 receiving yards (at Troy, at Louisiana Tech) and was the first 10+-catch day of the season. I’m not putting that on him, as the playcalling hasn’t been incredibly friendly to him since he returned from injury, but it’s nice to see him do work when given the chances to.
Had this thought during the game last night: Could Dalvin Smith fit into the Corley “gadget” role next year? He’s been on the recipient of those outside screens quite a bit and I think could become the focal point if WKU wants him to be (which, after seeing what happened with Corley this year, is a huge if).
Shoutout to Upton Stout. He was on the field for the first time since the MTSU game and made his presence felt, totaling six tackles and nearly coming away with an interception late in the first half.
It was a quiet day for the Hilltopper run game, but when Reed is slinging it for nearly 400 yards, I guess that can slide. Elijah Young quietly put together a 55-yard day while the rotation between him, Markese Stepp (who scored the only rushing touchdown for WKU) and Davion Ervin-Poindexter actually wasn’t head-scratchingly questionable, even on senior day.
Even in a win, I would not say this was a “fun” game to watch. Which led me to think, what was the last time I had “fun” watching a WKU football game? The first half against La Tech? Aside from that, I can’t tell you the last “fun” 60 minutes of Hilltopper football was. Probably the New Orleans Bowl, honestly.
I tweeted something to this effect last night but I want to reiterate here: Sam Houston State might be the best 9-loss team in the country. They Opened the year by allowing a combined 27 points to BYU and Air Force (they scored only three, though) and every conference loss has come within one-score. If they fine tune the right things, they might be a darkhorse for the top half of CUSA next year. That’s to say, WKU playing them close isn’t in itself a damnation of how good or bad WKU as a team is. That said, the Hilltopper offense still isn’t as potent as we all hoped and that will end up being the story of 2023 (five turnovers doesn’t help things, either).
20 of SHSU’s 23 points came off of WKU turnovers. SHSU turned the ball over three times but none of them directly led to WKU points.
What a day to be a Topper fan: Volleyball, women’s basketball, football and men’s basketball all won Saturday. Volleyball plays for a CUSA title Sunday at 11 a.m.