Aulbach: Toppers need answers after head-scratching loss

Freshman Nicholas Norris scores a touchdown against South Alabama. WKU plays South Alabama on Saturday Sept. 14, 2015 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

Lucas Aulbach

MOBILE, Ala. — Three games is all it took to put a cap on the Bobby Petrino honeymoon.

Week One was a triumphant win over a big-brother, in-state rival. Week Two was a disappointing loss to a good team due in part to seven turnovers.

The wheels fell off this week, though. And it didn’t take five interceptions, or a pair of pick-sixes, or an SEC defense to do it.

It wasn’t one person or one play that did it either, Petrino said after the game.

“It was everybody,” the coach said outside the locker room. “There were so many opportunities throughout the game where we had a chance to make a play to affect the outcome and we didn’t do it.”

The stat sheet shows a close game. WKU outgained the Jaguars, with 427 total yards to South Alabama’s 414, and held on to the ball longer than the opponent. From an outsider’s perspective, this game could be viewed as a tough loss to an evenly-matched opponent.

South Alabama isn’t supposed to be in WKU’s league, though.

Two weeks ago, when the Toppers were putting the finishing touches on their big win over Kentucky, South Alabama was coming off of a home loss to the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. Maybe the Jaguars — in just their second season as an FBS member — are better than people gave them credit for, maybe the Toppers are worse than people thought, or maybe it’s a little of both.

This game was supposed to be a cakewalk for WKU to start its conference schedule. Instead, it’s a loss that makes you question where exactly the Toppers stand in the Sun Belt Conference.

This isn’t just a Petrino problem, either. It’s a WKU problem. The Toppers had the same problems last year — finishing games, playing down to the competition, dumb penalties — and it took a lot of luck for that group to make it to postseason play.

Losing games like this derailed WKU’s 5-1 start last season, and a couple more bad losses like this will end talks about Petrino jumping at the next big job that opens up — who’s to say those schools will be interested in the coach if he can’t keep this group a Sun Belt contender?

A couple more notes on the loss in Mobile:

– It’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback and he’s had better nights, but I don’t put this one on Brandon Doughty. He was under pressure all night long, with his last pick coming on a desperation heave before a sack, and had another one get scooped up by the defender inches from the dirt.

– It’s a little easier to put some of the blame on the receivers. The Toppers are young at wide-out and it showed tonight — despite some solid catches from freshman Nicholas Norris, a lot of balls went through the fingers of Doughty’s targets.

– WKU’s defensive front has to improve if the Toppers are going to make noise in the Sun Belt. Three sacks were recorded but the WKU defensive line had a lot of trouble stopping South Alabama quarterbacks Brandon Bridge and Ross Metheny when they scrambled out of the pocket. The Toppers will see better dual threat quarterbacks this season — ULL’s Terrence Broadway and ULM’s Kolton Browning come to mind — that have better teams around them. Just like last year, they’ll make WKU pay if the Toppers can’t stop them.

WKU will face Morgan State of the FCS next Saturday, the first game of the season at Smith Stadium.

That game has looked like a blowout win on WKU’s schedule for a while, but so did this one — I don’t know which team to expect, the one that beat Kentucky by nine and left points on the table or the team that fell apart in the second half against South Alabama.

Whichever team shows up, though, the Toppers have work to do to prove they’re up to the high standards they set for themselves coming in to the year.