Hilltoppers score fewest points since 2012

Wisconsin safety Scott Nelson (9) blocks a pass to Western Kentucky tight end Mik’Quan Deane (85) at Camp Randall Stadium on August 31.

WKU’s loss to No. 4 Wisconsin on Friday featured a historically bad offensive night for the Hilltoppers.

WKU was trounced 34-3 by the Badgers. WKU’s offense had four red zone opportunities in the game and only came away with three points on those trips. It was the lowest-scoring game for WKU under head coach Mike Sanford. It was also the lowest-scoring game for the program since Sept. 8, 2012, when the Hilltoppers were blanked by Alabama 35-0. WKU was forced to punt on its first six drives of the game, four of which were three-and-out possessions.

“That’s the name of the game,” Sanford said of WKU’s red zone struggles. “It’s a 31-point game that we end up losing by. Four trips to the red zone, you get 28 points. Obviously ideally, your goal is to score a touchdown every time you get in the red zone.”

The Hilltoppers also had two turnovers in the red zone, one a fourth quarter fumble by backup quarterback Davis Shanley and one a botched trick play in which junior wide receiver Quin Jernighan attempted a pass to senior quarterback Drew Eckels. The ball was underthrown and intercepted. After the game Sanford said he didn’t regret the play call.

“It’s a trick play,” Sanford said. “I believe in putting the trust in our players to go out and execute plays and them taking the mentality from us that we’re going to go all in when we get in the red zone, when we get in the situation, we’re gonna go all in.”

Eckels, who provided a large chunk of the team’s offense, going 15 for 26 on his passes for 167 yards and adding 38 yards on the ground, was also optimistic that the play could have worked.

“They sniffed it out pretty well,” Eckels said. “Defense was pretty aware on what was happening, and I like the play call, and even though it didn’t work, we would do it again.”

The Hilltoppers at times seemed unable to run the ball, as five running backs got their shot, but Eckels remained the team’s leading rusher on the day, followed by Shanley, who saw action during the fourth quarter and rushed for 31 yards. Sanford said after the game that he still has faith in his running backs.

“I think those guys’ play improved top to bottom,” Sanford said. “Gino Appleberry did some really nice things late in the game. Garland LaFrance, some of his package was neutralized a little bit by their edge, but I thought that the running back group was much better.”

The Hilltopper offense also struggled with dropped passes. Sophomore wide receiver Xavier Lane in particular was targeted 11 times but only had four catches with two passes dropped. One of Lane’s drops came on a third down that would have moved the chains for the Hilltoppers

“I have a lot of faith in him, just like I do in a lot of our players,” Sanford said of Lane. “I’m going to stand up for [Xavier] and know that he’s going to put together a tremendous 2018 season, and I believe in Xavier Lane.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Hilltoppers had significantly less issues. Facing off against a possible Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, WKU looked mostly solid, with the exception of two plays, both of which Taylor turned into long touchdowns.

Senior linebacker Masai Whyte said after the game that he expected the defense, which also came up with three sacks, to continue to improve throughout the season.

“I like where we stand,” Whyte said. “Our defense came together. We try to play just as a unit and we knew we had to get the ball back as many times as we can for our offense to get opportunities.”

Sanford was also optimistic about the defense after the game, saying that they did well against a great Badger offensive line.

“Our defense fought,” Sanford said. “They fought hard. They were on the field way too much in the first half, we made some adjustments the second half, I thought we got them off the field quite a bit more in the second half.”

The Hilltoppers will be back in action at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday in Houchens-Smith Stadium against Maine.

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