Stephens: Execution evades Toppers in loss to MTSU

WKU coach Willie Taggart reacts in the final minutes of the game Nov. 1, 2012 at Smith Stadium. WKU fell to Middle Tennessee 29-34.

Brad Stephens

There was one team that deserved to win on Thursday night, and it definitely wasn’t the one wearing red.

Poor tackling, a sluggish start, key turnovers, wasted timeouts, poor special teams play — you name the football sin, and WKU probably committed it on Thursday in a 34-29 loss to rival Middle Tennessee State at Smith Stadium.

It’s a loss that pretty much drained the Toppers’ already-slim hopes for a Sun Belt championship.

What makes it sting even more is it’s also a defeat that could’ve been prevented.

“I said going into the game that we couldn’t turn the ball over or give up big plays and we had to play outstanding on special teams,” coach Willie Taggart said. “We didn’t do any of those things.”

The big play of the game was Reggie Whatley’s 96-yard kickoff return that put MTSU (6-3, 4-1 Sun Belt) up 34-27 in the fourth quarter.

He caught the kick at the four-yard line near the right sideline, cut left and ran to daylight as his blockers walled off most of the WKU kickoff team.

Whatley had already threatened to go the distance earlier in the game, returning a kick 40 yards to the MTSU 44 before being tripped up by WKU kicker Jesse Roy.

The fact that WKU (6-3, 3-2) allowed Whatley to take one to the house after he’d almost run one back in the first quarter was an illustration of how the Toppers’ night went.

There was the defense giving up 204 rushing yards — more than it had surrendered in single game — in the first half alone.

There was a fourth quarter fumble by Antonio Andrews — who played an otherwise outstanding game — on a punt return that gave MTSU the ball deep in Topper territory.

There were two wasted timeouts, coming at the 8:05 and 6:48 marks of the fourth quarter, which were the result of the Toppers “panicking,” according to Taggart.

There were botched blocking assignments on a 3rd-and-5 attempt coming out of that latter timeout — a Kawaun Jakes quarterback run that was stopped at the line of scrimmage, the MTSU 10-yard line, forcing WKU to settle for a field goal.

And there was Jakes’ lone interception of the night, which came with the Toppers down seven, inside the Blue Raider red zone with less than two minutes to play.

Simply put, WKU spent the night shooting itself in the foot, and lost because of it.

On the other side, the underdog Blue Raiders came in with a specific game plan.

They came in, established the run early, didn’t turn the ball over, played well on special teams and converted on nine of 15 third downs — just like coach Rick Stockstill said he preached to his team all week.

“I said here’s what it’s going to come down to: It’s going to come down to the team that can protect the ball the best — and we did that, we didn’t have any turnovers — it’s going to come down to the team that wins the kicking game and then I said we had to be good on offense on third down,” Stockstill said. “I thought those were the three keys.”

MTSU did each of those things, and that’s why it came out of Smith Stadium winners on Thursday.

For WKU, it’d be nice to say the lack of execution against the Blue Raiders was an anomaly.

But over the last month or so, the Toppers haven’t been playing their best.

Their offense was lackluster last week against Florida International.

Two weeks ago, the defense gave up 43 points in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

And Thursday it was a less-than-stellar effort in all three phases, especially special teams, that cost WKU a game it could’ve won.

“You can’t put the ball on the ground, you can’t give up kick returns, you can’t give up big plays,” Taggart said. “It’s all on us.”

If the Toppers are going to get their season back on track, they’ll have to start fixing that sloppy execution.