With Friday’s loss to Middle Tennessee State, WKU is off to its first 1-8 start since 2010, which also makes it the Hilltoppers’ first eight-loss season since 2010.
The loss now guarantees the Hilltoppers are on track for their worst season since the team went 2-10 at the start of this decade. That season was the third consecutive in which WKU lost double-digit games. The Hilltoppers also started 0-7 that year.
“We’re not going to carry ourselves with our heads down,” Sanford said. “1-8 is despicable to me. It really is, and internally that eats at you, there’s no doubt about it, but you have a choice in the matter. You can go into a deep-seated, deep-rooted depression of the situation or you can rise above it and find a way to get a result that you want to get.”
The Hilltopper offense was led by redshirt senior quarterback Drew Eckels, who had not played since the Maine game in Week 2 due to a shoulder injury.
“He’s a senior,” Sanford said of the decision to start Eckels. “He won the job, he was healthy, he proved to be healthy, and we wanted to let him go out there and compete, and he practiced like a guy that was ready to go win a game.
Despite the return of Eckels, the Hilltopper offense struggled to move the ball down the field and had a major issue converting third downs. WKU finished the game 4 for 16 on third down and at one point had been 0 for 6.
The Hilltoppers also went 1 for 3 on fourth down conversion attempts.
“Offensively, we’ve got to continue to find ways to get into the end zone,” Sanford said. “I know it’s a long season—it’s kind of been the same answer.”
WKU’s only offensive spark came late in the third when redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan replaced an injured Eckels and threw a 46-yard touchdown to redshirt junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson.
“I was excited to see Steven Duncan go out there and step up and make a play,” Sanford said. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries today, so we had to alter some things as the game went on.”
Running the ball was another area of concern for the Hilltoppers, who only went for 109 yards on the ground for the game. Duncan was the team’s second leading rusher with 28 yards, only 1 yard behind freshman running back Gino Appleberry, who had 29.
“What looks like a lot of called passes are indeed actually—a decent percentage are called runs with options,” Sanford said. “You’re essentially making them defend the entire field with utilization of triple-option football.”
On the other side of the ball, the Hilltopper defense was never able to get any footing against a powerful MTSU offense. Redshirt freshman running back Chaton Mobley had a field day, rushing for 198 yards on 25 attempts for an average of 7.9 yards per carry.
“He’s a big-style back,” redshirt sophomore safety Devon Key said after the game. “I give credit to him for running behind his pads, and we just had to do a better job tackling and gang tackling.”
WKU will be back in action on Saturday in Boca Raton, Florida, against Florida Atlantic. The Owls (4-5, 2-3 C-USA) are currently flying high after a dominating victory against a much improved Florida International team.
Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.