Pratt: Tops take lessons from Illinois into rivalry week

Redshirt defensive lineman Tanner Reeves (59) tackles the Illini’s running back Donovonn Young (5) during the second half of WKU’s 34-42 loss against the University of Illinois Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Mike Clark/HERALD

Elliott Pratt

Stop me if you’ve seen this scenario before: A WKU football team plays a flawless first game followed by a game of miscues and mistakes in a loss.

I’ve heard that song before too, but the tune was a bit more upbeat this time around.

WKU’s trip to Illinois, during week two of this season, was a lot different than its week two visit to Tennessee last year. There’s much more confidence and optimism this time – and for good reason.

The Hilltoppers didn’t play awfully, but they didn’t play phenomenally either. Looking back to last season, their performance at Tennessee was simply atrocious, due to five turnovers in a six-play span.

WKU didn’t have to play a Southeastern Conference team on the road this time. Instead, they tested their road resiliency against one of the bottom-tier teams of the Big Ten.

WKU was 15 minutes away from an upset with a 27-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Then, like in many games last year, the Hilltoppers stopped playing aggressive football just long enough to let mistakes cost them a win.

With a little over two minutes off the clock, Illinois had scored two quick touchdowns to retake the lead. One of those scores came off a pick-six from redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty.

Just like that, WKU let one get away. The team’s eyes were opened and let them know how fast victory can escape their grasp.

“We just need to understand, especially in our new conference now, we have tough competition,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “You’re going to have to play well for four quarters. I think if our guys continue to fight and get better each and every day, learn how small the difference is between winning and losing, that you’ve got to stay focused and locked in and play hard and play for all four quarters. If we can do that and sustain that, we’ll have a chance to win the ball game.”

That seems to be the problem with the ‘could of,’ ‘would of,’ ‘should of’ games that WKU has let slip away. With the exception of the Tennessee game last season, the Hilltoppers haven’t been completely outmatched in their losses the past two seasons. Following last season’s loss at Tennessee, WKU played three solid quarters of football at South Alabama, before Doughty threw three interceptions.

The fact that the Hilltoppers were that close to victory, against a team they were essentially supposed to lose to, has to be a good sign of the future for Brohm and company.

For the first time in a while, this is a loss you can take more positives from than negatives. While the run game was absent in the first game, junior running back Leon Allen finally got it rolling with 118 yards on the ground. Outside of the pick-six, Doughty’s performance wasn’t bad, considering it was on the road against a team wearing orange.

If the play continues to follow the script, week three this season could prove to follow suit to last year, but this team is more experienced and mature now, with different plans in mind.

“We really preach not getting too high after wins and not too low after losses,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Cameron Clemmons said. “You take it for what it is. We came in yesterday and watched the film and learned from it and made the corrections. We move on and don’t make it a bigger deal than what it really is.”

So let’s digress, because it’s rivalry week. The MTSU/WKU rivalry has been renewed, and it’s the first conference game as a member of Conference USA for the Hilltoppers. You couldn’t paint a more perfect welcome into the conference than pitting these two together for both teams’ first league games of the year.

MTSU is in a situation much like WKU. They owned Savannah State in the opener and came back in the second half to lose a close game to a Big Ten team in Minnesota.

Only the players on WKU’s team have a memory of playing the Blue Raiders – WKU’s coaches weren’t around when they last met, but the intensity of the rivalry will still remain high.

Week two, this year at Illinois, presented a similar scenario, comparable to week two last season at Tennessee. If WKU wants to change what happened in week three last year, a game against their biggest rival might be the perfect time to flip the script.