Failure to sustain offensive drives knocks Hilltoppers out of bowl eligibility

WKU wide receiver Jacquez Sloan (2) tackled by FIU defensive back Rishard Dames (35) during a homecoming football game 38-17 loss against Florida International university on Saturday, Oct 27, at Houchens L.T. Smith Stadium

Matt Stahl

WKU football suffered yet another blowout defeat on Saturday, losing 38-17 to Florida International in part due to the Hilltopper offense’s inability to sustain drives when it mattered.

WKU made its way into the red zone on only four of its 10 drives. Of those trips, two ended with touchdowns, one in a field goal, and one in a field goal attempt senior kicker Alex Rinella hit off the right upright.

“We’ve got to have our best in those situations,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “I like the way we started the game out moving the ball, marching the ball, running the football, but you’ve got to have your best when you’re in the red zone.”

It was only toward the end of the gamewhen it was too late to matterthat the Hilltoppers were able to find any sort of foothold on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Davis Shanley, who started the game, completed 14 of 25 passes for 105 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

WKU fared slightly better on the ground, rushing for a total of 168 yards split between seven rushers. Redshirt freshman running back Joshua Samuel led the group with 83 yards on 14 attempts for an average of 5.9 yards per carry.

“I just kept trying to run the ball hard,” Samuel said. “That’s what I’m going to do and keep on doing.”

The worst moments for the offense came early and continued into the third quarter, a quarter all Sanford-led WKU teams have now been outscored in by 100 points. The Hilltoppers only managed a field goal through their first seven drives of the game and trailed 14-3 after finally putting those points on the board.

The WKU defense also had its struggles, surrendering 368 yards of total offense to the Panthers, who, unlike the Hilltopper offense, were able to capitalize on their opportunities, with redshirt junior quarterback James Morgan racking up three touchdown passes. All of those came after long FIU drives where the Hilltoppers had chances to get the ball back.

One positive for the defense was senior linebacker Ben Holt, who recorded 19 total tackles, which tied the program’s Football Bowl Subdivision record. With the loss, Holt and the rest of the team are now unable to attain bowl eligibility, a first for his career.

“I think as a team we’ll never roll over,” Holt said. “I think if you have any pride as a football player, you should never roll over … I think every day, it’s just, we’re going to try to get better and try to get out of this rut we’re in.”

Sanford agreed with Holt, who also contributed a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup.

“It’s a matter of pride,” Sanford said. “It really is, and it’s about these seniors, these 10 seniors, sending them out the right way. It’s about us making sure that those seniors, they finish their careers on a high note.”

The Hilltoppers, who dropped to 1-7 (0-4 Conference USA) with the loss, travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, this Friday to take on Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders improved to 5-3 (4-1 C-USA) by dismantling Old Dominion 51-17 on the road Saturday.

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