Through their Fingertips: Dropped passes doom WKU at South Alabama

WKU wide receiver Nicholas Norris drops a pass in the first half of WKU’s 31-24 loss against South Alabama on Saturday Sept. 14, 2015 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. 

Elliott Pratt

The Toppers are behind the eight-ball going into Saturday’s home opener against Morgan State.

On paper, WKU’s (1-2, 0-1 Sun Belt Conference) 31-24 loss at South Alabama (2-1, 1-0 SBC) could not have been more devastating for a program expected to finish near the top of the Sun Belt.

Now the Toppers find themselves in a must-win situation welcoming an 0-3 team from the lower Football Championship Series rankings to Smith Stadium this Saturday.

“I’m looking forward to the routine for a home game and what you do and how you prepare it,” Coach Bobby Petrino said. “I’m looking for a crowd to come out with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. It’s always great to play at home. Hopefully that’s something that helps us and gives us energy and helps in our preparation for the week because it’s really important that we improve this week in practice.”

Senior linebacker Chuck Franks said the team is ready to get the win in front of a home crowd on Saturday but carrying over the energy from practice to the game and capitalizing on opportunities when the defense gets them is what the team must do to get a win at home.

“Defensively, we just have to go back to the basics,” Franks said. “It goes back to practice. We need to practice a little bit harder during the week, focus more on our game plan. Also in those games, we just have to take advantage of all our opportunities.”

Bringing the energy from practice to the game is something the team has to do in order to bounce back from Saturday’s disappointing loss to South Alabama, Petrino said.

Carrying over their momentum from the first half to the part two of each game has also been a struggle for WKU. In the past two games, WKU has scored only three points in the second half. In combining second halves for the season, WKU has been outscored 51-20.

Petrino hasn’t shied away from noting that the second half has been an issue all season.

“It certainly has, particularly in that third quarter with our defense not being able to get off the field,” Petrino said. “We have to re-evaluate everything we’re doing at halftime.”

Petrino said the struggles come from all 11 players on the field. It’s easy to place the blame on junior quarterback Brandon Doughty, whose FBS-leading eight interceptions in the past two games don’t help, but the coach says it’s the lack of cohesiveness that holds the team back.

“We’re not playing real well around (Doughty) with everybody,” Petrino said. “I’ve always answered the question when anyone asks me, ‘How do you get your quarterback to play so well?’ and it’s you get the 10 guys around him to really do their job — really execute, protect, make catches, run the ball, so a quarterback really has success with the 10 guys around him.”

Freshman wide receiver Nicholas Norris is one of those 10 guys around Doughty trying to make the offense function to Petrino’s expectations. Norris did his part on Saturday, hauling in seven catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns.

He said the team’s focus changes as the game winds on, resulting in losses for WKU.

“We were just more hungry in the first half, came out just dominating,” Norris said. “Then the second half, we just let our foot off the gas and mistakes build, and as you see, we lost the game.”

Saturday’s game home opener against Morgan State will be the first game in Smith Stadium for Norris who said he’s ready to play with his team in front of Topper Nation.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Norris said. “I’ve never played in front of so many fans screaming my name and screaming for the Hilltoppers, so I’m excited to get there.”