Stephens: WKU needs a return to early-season form

WKU defensive back Darryl Gilchrist watches the final plays of the game Saturday afternoon. WKU lost to FAU 37-28.

Brad Stephens

WKU stepped into a time machine Saturday.

The defensive breakdowns, the interceptions, the missed blocking assignments, the special teams gaffes, the half-empty stadium — with some silver helmets and a little Third Down Thunder, we would’ve been back in the David Elson era.

The Toppers’ season hit a low point Saturday as Sun Belt Conference bottom-feeder Florida Atlantic (3-7, 2-4 Sun Belt) went to Smith Stadium and beat WKU (6-4, 3-3) 37-28.

For the Toppers, losers of two of their last three coming into Saturday, FAU offered a chance for a seventh win — one that would help solidify bowl chances and keep them near the top of the league.

Instead WKU, in the words of coach Willie Taggart, “didn’t play well at all.”

The game had a much different feel than their previous home Sun Belt losses — against Louisiana-Monroe Oct. 20 and against Middle Tennessee State Nov. 1.

Those two losses could’ve been wins if a play or two here or there went the other way.

But against FAU, WKU was physically whipped throughout the game.

It was a pattern of Owl receivers running through the secondary, of running back Antonio Andrews not getting the blocking he had earlier in the year, of quarterback Kawaun Jakes missing some throws and his receivers not helping him out on others.

More than anything, the Toppers looked more tentative than physical.

That’s something senior right guard Adam Smith knows WKU must fix if it’s to win its last two regular season games.

“I don’t know exactly what it was that we weren’t playing as physical as we had in the beginning of the year,” Smith said. “But it’s something we’ve got to get back to.”

Less than a month ago, when the 5-1 Toppers led ULM 28-7 in the second quarter, people were talking about a possible national ranking.

But when Warhawk quarterback Kolton Browning led his team to a stunning 43-42 comeback win, it sucked the life out of WKU.

The week after, a sluggish Topper side beat a bad Florida International team 14-6.

Now in the past two games WKU has fallen flat, running a home losing streak to three games and losing the swagger it played with in September.

It’s a concerning trend for a team that looked so promising early in the year — whether playing tough against then-No. 1 Alabama, steamrolling Southern Mississippi or scoring gritty road wins against Kentucky, Arkansas State and Troy.

The good thing is that the coaches and players from those games are the same guys that will be on the sidelines and on the field the next two weeks when WKU plays must-win games Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas.

“This football team is still a good football team,” Taggart said. “…We got to find a way to get back, whether it’s the way we prepare, game-planning, whatever it is, we just have to find a solution and get our guys back to executing the way they did early in the year.”

The pieces are there for the Toppers to win out and salvage their bowl hopes.

They’ve seen what happens when they focus, play physical and avoid mistakes. The last few weeks they’ve also seen what happens when they play uptight, turn the ball over and don’t execute.

How this WKU season will be remembered — whether it be a landmark season marked a by a bowl berth, or a once-promising season finished with a whimper — will be decided the next two weeks.

One thing everyone understands: an effort like Saturday’s won’t get the job done.