Aulbach: At this point, Toppers are who they are

Western Kentucky University’s Nelson Fishback talks to coach Bobby Petrino during their game at against Troy at WKU on Saturday, October 26, 2013. 

Lucas Aulbach

Breaking old habits really is hard to do.

Turnovers, weak defense late in the game, and an assortment of other mistakes buried the Toppers in a 32-26 loss at Homecoming to Troy on Saturday at Smith Stadium.

It was a disappointing loss for WKU, which, at 1-3 in the Sun Belt Conference, has a tough road to climb if it wants to clinch another bowl berth. But really, it was more of the same.

It wasn’t the first time turnovers played a role in the loss. While the Topper quarterbacks (coach Bobby Petrino used sophomore Nelson Fishback early but let junior Brandon Doughty take the majority of the snaps Saturday) didn’t throw an interception, the Trojans scored two touchdowns off of two Doughty fumbles. Those two botched possessions could have been the difference for a WKU offense that recorded 532 total yards.

The Toppers consistently turn the ball over — other than the Louisiana-Monroe game, which featured just one interception, WKU has committed at least two turnovers in every game.

This wasn’t the first time is year the Toppers let themselves lost a solid early lead, either — they’ve had times where they looked like they were going to roll over South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette, two teams they let come back and beat them this year.

For some reason this is a team that can’t find its way in the second half.

WKU built a 20-10 halftime lead but the Trojans had a 22-6 advantage in the second half alone Saturday. Troy was 1-of-6 on third downs in the first half but went 5-of-7 in the second. It might be a product of teams changing their gameplan at halftime, it might be a product of exhaustion, but for some reason, the Topper defense consistently struggles in the final 30 minutes.

One of the biggest plays of the night was a defensive lapse late in the game. Trailing 32-26 and in need of a stop, WKU forced the Trojan offense into a 3rd-and-24 situation deep in Troy territory with less than 10 minutes to go.

A second half like that can squander a lot of good play, and it did against Troy. Doughty may not have started but, despite the turnovers, he still looked like WKU’s best option at quarterback — he completed 29 passes for 387 yards through the air.

Senior running back Antonio Andrews also had one of his most well-rounded performances of the season, rushing for 144 yards and picking up another 125 through the air, including an impressive 60-yard pick-up on a short shovel pass in the third quarter.

The second half has been a major problem in all four Topper losses this year. WKU has been outscored by a total of 88-19 in the second halves of its four losses.

Even Petrino said the second half has been the difference for WKU this year.

“The games we’ve won, we’ve came out and won the game in the second half but here in the last two, we haven’t been able to get it done,” he said after the game. “We have to be able to handle the pressure and execute. We are young in certain areas, particularly in throwing the ball and making the plays at the end.”

These problems are more than just a couple-week trend — they’re starting to define WKU as a team. And with four games to go, the Toppers are going to have to rewrite the book on them quickly if they want to have a chance to get back into the postseason.