Aulbach: Toppers take a pass on style points in Georgia State win

WKU junior Willie McNeal catches a pass for the first down against Georgia State at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 02, 2013. 

Lucas Aulbach

ATLANTA, Ga. – It wasn’t a perfect game — WKU struggled to move the ball at times and gave up too many second half points again — but after Saturday’s 44-28 win over Georgia State, coach Bobby Petrino and the Toppers looked happy just to be back in the win column.

“I thought they came out there today and had fun and played hard,” Petrino said about his team after the game. “We didn’t do everything right but we executed and were able to score enough points and defend well enough to get the win.”

The Toppers came to Atlanta needing a win after dropping their last two games against conference opponents. It seemed like WKU (5-4, 2-3 Sun Belt Conference) was set to try something new, but I think even the people closest to the team were a little surprised that senior running back Keshawn Simpson, of everyone on the Topper roster, turned out to be the hero.

Simpson had a total of 20 carries and two touchdowns on the year coming into Saturday’s game — when the clock ran out in the Georgia Dome, he left the game with four touchdowns on 10 carries.

Simpson gave the credit after the game to his offensive line and other key members of the Topper offense, but he brought a lot to a team that was looking for a red zone threat.

WKU had struggled to put the ball in the end zone in the past few days — Petrino had made it clear this week that he was tired of settling for field goals and close losses. Saturday, he let Simpson show how he could help the offense, and it paid off.

WKU might need to rely on Simpson, senior Antonio Andrews (who finished with 110 yards on the ground) and the rest of its stable of runners for the time being.

Junior quarterback Brandon Doughty had a solid start to the game, with a 16-yard highlight touchdown toss to senior fullback Kadeem Jones, before exiting in the third quarter after a late helmet-to-helmet hit as he was sliding. Doughty was replaced by redshirt freshman Damarcus Smith for a couple of plays before sophomore Nelson Fishback took the reins.

Petrino said he was pleased by Fishback’s play and continues to be impressed by Smith’s efforts in practice — he said even if Doughty hadn’t gotten hurt he still had a plan to use Smith in certain packages Saturday — but Doughty still looked like the most qualified person to run the offense when he was in the game. If he misses significant time, it’s going to hut the Toppers.

While it was a big win for the program (make no mistake about it, losing this game would have all but killed WKU’s bowl hopes for the year) the Toppers showed they still have areas they need to improve in.

The defense had a strong first half — after the first 30 minutes the Panthers had picked up just 145 total yards, with 67 coming on one play. Georgia State finished with 410 total yards after a 21-point second half. While the Toppers made plays when they counted, giving up 28 points to one of the worst offenses in the FBS is an issue.

Little mistakes also hounded WKU. Doughty threw a key interception in the third quarter that helped the Panthers get back in to the game, and the Toppers weren’t able to handle an onside kick late. That onside kick didn’t end up hurting WKU, which was holding a 16-point lead with 1:20 to go, but sometimes plays like that can be the difference between a close win and season-ending loss.

Still, those mistakes won’t change the final score. It wasn’t always pretty, but Saturday was an important win for a WKU team looking to get back on track.