The Walkthrough: Hilltoppers must move on from three tough losses

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Jeremy Chisenhall

The bye week is here, and WKU football is now left with an extra week to reflect and move on from a 1-4 start.

That 1-4 start could easily be flipped to 4-1, considering the heartbreaking three-point losses WKU has suffered to Maine, Louisville and now Marshall. The most recent of those close losses came with the Hilltoppers within yards of an upset win to open Conference USA play.

“Those close losses are ones that justthey gut you,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “There have also been some good performances, and Ball State obviously is a game where we were essentially in a one-point game and got a touchdown late, but that was one of those games too that really was going to come down to the end, and getting over the hump in that game was big.”

After WKU got “over the hump” at Ball State, Sanford rejoiced in the fact that his team was able to finish off a game, something that had been a point of emphasis in the weeks prior after blowing leads to Louisville and Maine. But WKU backtracked in Week 5 and gave up a 98-yard touchdown drive to give Marshall the lead back before redshirt sophomore quarterback Steven Duncan fumbled at the Thundering Herd’s 10-yard line to end the game.

Adding to the heartbreak of each close loss is the fact that every single one has come down to one play in which the Hilltoppers had a chance to tie or win the game and failed to convert each time.

The first game-defining play came on Sept. 8 against the Black Bears, when senior kicker Ryan Nuss attempted a 48-yard field goal to take the Hilltoppers to overtime. It was immediately following a play in which redshirt senior quarterback Drew Eckels suffered an upper-body injury that he still hasn’t returned from.

Looking to avoid an upset to a Football Championship Subdivision team, Nuss needed a heroic moment to buy WKU another period of play. But his 48-yard attempt never even passed the line of scrimmage as it was blocked and recovered by Maine to end the game.

Nuss was called on again to try to get the Hilltoppers to overtime against U of L the next week. With WKU on the Cardinals’ 36-yard line, he needed to make what would have been a career-long field goal of 51 yards. His attempt was wide right, leaving the Hilltoppers just three points short for the second consecutive week.

The Hilltoppers won’t be able to let the close losses linger on their minds, as conference play will continue on Oct. 13 at Charlotte. Middle Tennessee State pulled off an upset over the preseason favorite to win C-USA in Florida Atlantic last week, showing that this conference is still wide open this season. But WKU needs a conference win as soon as possible before the conference picture really takes shape.

The mood within the program is still that the Hilltoppers can turn the corner and make an impression this year.

“We’re ready to put it all together,” Duncan said after the loss to Marshall. “This team’s really good. We’re really freaking good. And I believe in every single one of these guys. They’re determined, and they’re ready to bounce back, and I am too, and I’m ready to help them out and do my job. It’s going to come together.”

Sports editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at [email protected] and 859-760-0198.