WKU disappointed after loss in home opener

With an impending WKU loss to Indiana looming, senior linebacker Orlando Misaalefua walks WKU’s sideline late in the second half of Saturday’s home opener against the Hoosiers. The Toppers fell to the Hoosiers, 38-21.

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Willie Taggart didn’t flash his trademark smile or give the Toppers a pat on the back Saturday.

In fact, there was little talk of improvement or silver linings after WKU’s 38-21 loss to Indiana in the home opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Although he softened his stance Monday and said he regretted calling the performance “a step back,” Taggart was openly disappointed at his post-game press conference Saturday. Even more so, he said he was frustrated that the Toppers came up flat in front of 20,772 fans — the second largest crowd to ever watch a game at Smith Stadium.

“That’s not how we’ve been all year,” Taggart said. “We didn’t come ready to play like we’re capable of playing.”

Taggart said WKU (0-3) got better in blowout losses at Nebraska and Kentucky but asserted that the same signs of progress didn’t come against the Hoosiers.

The offense, which had been plugging along this season behind junior running back Bobby Rainey, opened the game with a 91-yard scoring drive but stumbled to just 197 yards the rest of the way.

The defense fared no better, surrendering 466 yards and allowing Indiana to convert 10 of 13 third downs.

“That’s absolutely not going to get it done,” junior safety Ryan Beard said. “They were either a step ahead of us, or we were in the wrong coverage, and that can’t happen.”

Rainey’s 11-yard touchdown run on the Toppers’ first drive gave them an early 7-0 lead, but Indiana then rattled off 31 unanswered points while WKU produced a meager 53 yards of offense on their next five drives.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes said the Toppers have done a good job of starting games and finishing them, but it doesn’t matter if they totally collapse in between.

“After that first score, we punted four or five times in a row,” Jakes said. “We just got happy feet, and then it went downhill.”

Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell carved up the WKU secondary, spreading the ball around to six different receivers for 366 passing yards.

The Hoosiers’ starting receivers, who all stand 6 foot 3 inches or taller, helped Chappell and the rest of the Indiana offense rally back from third-down situation after third-down situation. But Taggart said the height of the wide-outs didn’t come into play.

After all, this wasn’t the first time the Topper defense hasn’t been able to get off the field. WKU has allowed opponents to convert 23 of 33 third downs (69.7 percent) this season, which ranks last among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

“They had some trees over there, and we have some grass on our side,” Taggart said of Indiana’s receivers. “Those guys are big, but that’s no excuse for not taking care of your job.”

Taggart was clear that he’ll find someone who can do the job better at South Florida this weekend. He chose to start true freshman Xavius Boyd at linebacker Saturday over senior Orlando Misaalefua and also gave freshmen Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright significant playing time at cornerback.

Beard said the Toppers are fine with using the competition as motivation, because drastic times call for drastic measures.

And it doesn’t get much more drastic than 23 straight losses.

“We just need that one turning point in our season that shows us that it’s okay for us to be successful — that we don’t have to lose another game,” Beard said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take, but we need to go find it.”