Hilltopper offense finding stride at right time, young players continue to emerge

Sam Porter

The WKU offense has put on quite an offensive show the past two weeks, averaging exactly 40 points per game in wins over Charlotte and Old Dominion after averaging just 21.6 PPG in the first five contests.

Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White seems to have the offense rolling at just the right time as the Hilltoppers are halfway through conference play. White has accounted for 11 total touchdowns (10 passing, one rushing) in the past two games after accounting for six touchdowns in the first five games. He’s also thrown for over 300 yards in back-to-back games for the first time this season. On top of throwing five touchdowns in each of the past two games, White threw those scores to five different players in the each game.

“We challenged the receiver group after the UTEP game, we said we needed players to emerge,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “If you want to play, show us in practice, show us in the game. You have to be ready to go if you’re the starter or the backup, because at any given time the ball could be coming your direction. This isn’t an offense where we feed two receivers and everyone else blocks. There’s a lot of multiplicity to what we do. We challenged our receivers to emerge as playmakers and we’ve had a lot of guys do that these past couple of weeks.”

Of those receivers, several of them were relatively unknown before the season began. True freshman Jacquez Sloan has caught six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games after rarely seeing the field in the first five games.

Redshirt sophomore Quin Jernighan caught a team best six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in the 35-31 win over ODU Friday. Redshirt senior tight end Deon Yelder, who entered the year with zero career catches, continued to have stellar day against ODU, catching three passes for 65 yards and a touchdown and earning national honors as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week.

Graduate transfer Cam Echols-Luper scored his first career touchdown Friday, a 13-yard strike from White where he lost his helmet after taking a shot from an ODU defender. The TCU transfer has caught nine passes for 92 yards over the past two games after catching just four passes over the first five games.

“The one guy that has been there consistently has been Mike White,” Sanford continued. “He’s been unbelievable down the stretch. He’s a big reason why we’re in the position we’re in. Every year you have to re-invent yourself, every game you have to reinvent yourself. The whole key to this team is doing whatever we have to do to chalk up a mark in the W column.”

Defensively, one name in particular emerged in last Friday’s comeback victory. Redshirt freshman Devon Key had already stepped in for injured starter Marcus Ward and had performed at a high level. On Friday, Key was the one down with injury. True freshman safety Kyle Bailey stepped in his place against ODU and made the most of the opportunity. The Carollton, Georgia, native recorded nine tackles and an interception in the victory.

“I was in the deep post and [cornerback] Drell [Greene] made a great break on the ball and broke it up, and I was able to get there in time to make the play,” Bailey said about the interception. “Friday night was like a dream. It was a great feeling being able to show people that I came here to play.”

The win over ODU improves WKU to 5-2 (3-1 C-USA). The Hilltoppers host Florida Atlantic at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium. After a 1-3 start, the Owls have won three straight C-USA games by an average of 28.6 PPG and currently sit atop the C-USA East standings. If the Hilltoppers want to take down Lane Kiffin and FAU, several players will likely have to continue to step up in big time situations.

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.