The Walkthrough: What we know four weeks into the Sanford Era

Evan Heichelbech is the College Heights Herald Editor-in-Chief for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.

Evan Heichelbech

The WKU Hilltopper football team was picked in the preseason to win its third straight Conference USA title while being led by a man who had never served as a head coach in a NCAA Division 1 football game. Read that sentence twice, and then think about how unusual it sounds.

It seems like Jeff Brohm has been gone from Bowling Green for years, and the first month of Sanford Ball (is that what we should call it?) hasn’t exactly reminded us of the last head coach of the Hilltoppers—at least not in ways some may have expected.

Mike Sanford is an offensive coach, this, we know. His track record is proven. Grooming a NFL starting quarterback at Notre Dame, helping mold future professional running backs and fantasy football monsters (cough, cough Jay Ajayi) at traditionally high-scoring schools like Boise State, and a former quarterback himself, Sanford literally has offensive football in his blood. His dad has coached across the country in the collegiate and professional ranks for four decades and is now on his son’s first staff at WKU.

But when athletic director Todd Stewart decided to make Sanford the youngest head coach in college football (a title Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley has since claimed), it was inherently a risk. It was inherently a risk simply because anytime a program hires a first-time head coach there are no guarantees.

But listening to Sanford speak in his introductory press conference and in the months leading up to the season, the 35-year-old did not appear to be a rookie by any means, and he certainly didn’t talk like one. He laid out his goals, titled them “The Pursuit,” pieced together a solid recruiting class in limited time and seemingly got the players on WKU’s 2017 roster to buy in.

But all it took was a 1-2 start to the season for the sky to start falling, questions to start flying and worry to start settling in deeply — all of which was completely unfitting with Sanford’s tenure at WKU still in its infancy.

The calendar hasn’t even hit October yet and it’s too early for any commentary, but since the season is four weeks old and a bye weekend has arrived, let’s talk about what we know.

Consider these real-life statistical samples chosen from two of WKU’s last 13 games played dating back to last season.

Sample 1: Mike White throws for 222 yards on 22-of-38 passing with one touchdown and an interception. WKU finishes with 205 rushing yards, the leading rusher accounting for 152 of those yards. The Hilltoppers have two wide receivers over 90 yards in receiving, and the team loses to an SEC school by one point with the outcome of the game decided in the final seconds.

Sample 2: Mike White throws for 300 yards on 28-of-44 passing with one touchdown and two interceptions, both of which are thrown in the red zone. His leading receiver has 86 yards on six catches, all of which come in the first half of play. WKU finishes with just 52 rushing yards in a 12-point victory over a mid-major school.

Judging purely by the numbers, the reasonable assumption would be that Sample 2 was a game in which a younger or more inexperienced quarterback struggled in an early season game against average competition. And Sample 1 looks more like a quarterback who has progressed through a system over a season or so and came close to upsetting a Power 5 opponent with the help of a more well-rounded team.

The reality is this: White threw for over 200 yards and came up one possession shy of defeating Vanderbilt in just his fourth game as the starter at WKU as a transfer from South Florida. He hadn’t progressed through a new offensive system for an extended period of time, but he had the help of WKU greats Ace Wales and Taywan Taylor, and his head coach was Jeff Brohm.

In his 17th start as quarterback of the Hilltoppers, White threw for over 300 yards and one touchdown but had two red zone turnovers that could have very easily cost his team a chance to win. Redshirt freshman Xavier Lane, White’s leading receiver, had only two collegiate games under his belt and WKU struggled to get the running game going yet again in Mike Sanford’s fourth game as a head coach.

The real stats to pay attention to? White engineered an 8-play, 76-yard drive resulting in the go-ahead touchdown to defeat Ball State, taking over three minutes off the clock and showing his veteran savvy in the process. He even threw the ball to eight different receivers, including six on the opening drive of the game which looked awful similar to the quarterback fans saw last year. There’s a reason he threw for 4,000-plus yards a season ago and has NFL teams interested in his potential. It’s because he’s good at playing quarterback.

By comparing a sample of statistics from Week 4 of 2016 and Week 4 of 2017, a larger picture is illustrated: there are no comparisons. It’s a whole new coaching staff, a whole new offense and a whole lot of new players. Luckily for WKU, Sanford has White to help make the transition.

The only three skill players who played in the Vanderbilt game a year ago were White, Nacarius Fant (five catches, 95 receiving yards and a score) and Quinton Baker, who had one carry for negative yardage and a fumble.

White is still learning the offense himself, and a slew of fresh, unproven faces are trying to help him execute it for a rookie head coach. What more did people expect?

When a fan base is spoiled and fortunate enough to watch the beauty that is Brohm’s offensive play calling unfold and take effect for three years, it’s easy to get greedy.

The only way Sanford was going to top Brohm’s offensive success right away was to have his players wear jetpacks and defy the laws of physics to score touchdowns. I mean, there’s a reason Brohm and Purdue took a halftime lead over Jim Harbaugh’s nationally ranked Michigan Wolverines last Saturday. It’s because he’s good at being a head football coach.

Even though Sanford hasn’t had the smoothest of starts doesn’t mean that he won’t reach his own level of success on the Hill. I personally think Stewart took an excellent risk with Sanford, and I know Sanford has faith in his own system. He just needs time … perhaps a little more than four weeks.

Sports Editor Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.