Hilltoppers suffer biggest conference loss since 2014

The WKU Hilltoppers lose 40-14 against the Charlotte 49ers at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Sat. Oct. 13, 2018.

Matt Stahl

A letdown loss to Charlotte capped off the worst first six games WKU football has had since 2010, as a 40-14 blowout has the Hilltoppers sitting at 1-5.

The game was marked by the Hilltoppers’ inability to score and the seeming regression of the defense, which allowed 448 total yards.

“I think this was obviously a step backward,” WKU head coach Mike Sanford said to the media after the game. “This is not characteristic of who we are.”

The Hilltopper offense was stagnant for most of the game, only managing 42 rushing yards and 214 passing yards throughout the entire game. One of their two touchdowns came in garbage time when they were down 40-7.

“I’ve got to look at myself and figure out how to get our offense across the goal line, period,” Sanford said. “I think ultimately that’s what gives our defense the momentum to be able to play at a high level.”

Redshirt freshman Davis Shanley got the start at quarterback for the Hilltoppers and stayed in for most of the game, completing 20-of-29 passes for 154 yards. Shanley also threw two interceptions, the first two of his career, and was pulled in the final minutes for redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan. Duncan orchestrated an 11-play scoring drive, going 7 for 10 on passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. Duncan now has half of WKU’s passing touchdowns this season with four.

“The critical factors at that position are always going to be playing efficient at that position, run and pass,” Sanford said. “But also, take care of the football, that’s obviously an area we didn’t achieve.”

The Hilltoppers twice drove into Charlotte territory and came up empty, once getting to the 28 before a 10-yard penalty forced a punt. On the other occasion, the Hilltoppers got down to the 33 before a missed field goal.

“It was significant,” Sanford said of the missed opportunities. “I think in both those situations, you know, we have to look at the reasons why we didn’t have it.”

The score sat at 9-7 in favor of Charlotte going into the halftime break, but the 49ers broke the game open in the third quarter, which has been an Achilles’ heel of the Sanford-era Hilltoppers, bringing the score to 30-7 before the period ended. WKU has been outscored 44-10 in third quarters this season.

The Hilltoppers didn’t manage to get a first down in the quarter, while Charlotte got 10, holding onto the ball for 12:45 of the 15 minutes. WKU only gained 4 yards on seven plays for the quarter.

“We came out as a family and we’re going to stick together through a tough loss like this,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Tyler Witt said. “But looking back on it, all across the board we just needed to get better.”

The Hilltoppers will need to win all but one of their remaining games, or they will miss a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The road to eligibility will be difficult, as WKU still has tough games remaining against Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State.

“Coming out and having those tough losses, you want to see some positive sides of that,” Witt said. “I think we’re getting closer and closer each week and there’s sparks of it during the game, and I think we need to keep going back to it and honing in that.”

The Hilltoppers will be back in action at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Houchens-Smith Stadium against Old Dominion, who dropped to 1-6 on Saturday with a 42-20 loss to Marshall.

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.