WKU defense trying to correct the little things

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Jake D.Stevens

WKU junior defensive end Jared Clendenin tackles Kentucky tailback Derrick Locke in the second quarter of last Saturday’s game at UK.

Zach Greenwell

Not much has gone right for the WKU defense through the first two weeks of the season.

The Toppers (0-2) rank 119th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense. They’re 112th in rushing yards allowed (247.5 yards per game) and 116th in total yards allowed (509 per game).

Although the numbers don’t lie, Defensive Coordinator Clint Bowen said a defense that lurked in the FBS cellar last season can’t vault to the top overnight.

“We keep pointing out to the kids that we’re really not that far off,” Bowen said. “Once everyone takes care of their job and does it with some urgency, good things will start happening for us. This is probably the growing pains of putting in a new system, and we need to get better in a hurry.”

The growing has hurt, and hurt badly.

The Toppers watched Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb run wild on them over the first two weeks, but Bowen said the slightest improvement in focus could have changed that.

“That’s what football is — a game of repetition and seeing it and doing it,” he said. “Eventually you get it to where it’s second nature. A lot of those plays in the Kentucky game that looked really bad — one little thing changed could have made it really good for us.”

After the loss at Nebraska, Head Coach Willie Taggart criticized WKU’s poor tackling. Taggart said tackling improved while other areas faltered following last weekend’s 63-28 rout at Kentucky.

“We probably took a step back when it comes from an assignment standpoint — guys being where they were supposed to,” Taggart said. “We weren’t crisp on that part of it. But those are the things we have to get better at as a football team if we want to be a winning team and be consistent with it, especially when you’re playing against people like Nebraska and Kentucky.”

Senior linebacker Chris Bullard said it’s now just a matter of putting both facets of the defense together, and the players can sense they’re “really close.”

“I feel like the mentality on this defense is there and everybody wants it,” Bullard said. “Once that switch gets flipped and everybody’s on the same page, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Flipping the switch seems to be the main problem. It’s an issue that junior defensive end Jared Clendenin said frustrates him, especially considering how responsive the Toppers have been to Bowen’s new 4-3 scheme.

“I like the defense and all the schemes,” Clendenin said. “It should be working, but we’ve got to do the little things. If 10 people do it right and one person messes up something, that can cause that play to pop. We’ve got to have all 11 people on point for the whole game.”

Bowen said the coaching staff is still figuring out who can hold their own for an entire game. It takes some feeling out of each player because some kids react differently from practice to a game, he said.

“The one thing about practice is, you get in that practice mode, and then once the game hits, things happen a lot faster,” Bowen said. “There’s a very small margin of error in Division-I football. A wrong step or things like that can cost you big, and Nebraska and Kentucky have proven that to our guys.

“I’ve sensed a little more sense of urgency from our guys to work on those teeny-tiny details.”