The large crowd in Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday night was rewarded with a Hilltopper win over reigning Conference USA champion Alabama-Birmingham — a stellar squad the WKU football team really had no business beating on paper.
It was defensive coordinator Clayton White’s unit that did the work. The defense took the ball from UAB time after time, while the WKU offense did just enough to capitalize on the Blazers’ numerous turnovers to walk away with the 20-13 victory.
The defensive effort by the Hilltoppers was the best they’ve had this season and it was probably the best in White’s tenure at WKU. Every time the defense needed to come through with a big play, someone found a way to step up and do so.
Jeremy Darvin in particular had an eye for the big moment, as the 305-pound defensive tackle came away with an interception. While the ball hit Darvin directly in the hands, an interception is not a play that defensive linemen usually make.
Darvin also came up with a late-game sack on fourth down to help seal the victory, a play that prompted White to show some surprising speed in his celebratory sprint down the sideline.
Offensively, it was a different story. 222 yards of total offense and 20 points are simply not enough when the defense gives you so many extra possessions. To make matters worse, the run game that looked so promising early on this season went absolutely stagnant.
Gaej Walker finished with only 19 yards on 12 attempts. Walker finished second on the team in rushing yards to new quarterback Ty Storey, who led the team with 26 rushing yards. Storey’s newfound starting job was a secret until he headed out onto the field, something that probably didn’t help the Hilltoppers nearly as much as Tyson Helton hoped.
Though Storey didn’t do anything spectacular, he was steady when Helton needed him to be. Going forward, assuming he remains the starter, he’ll need to be better than that, as it seems unlikely that the defense will continue to bail him out at the rate it did on Saturday.
The best thing Storey did was keep his composure following a first play that was a failure of Mike Sanford-esque proportions. The backwards-pass turned fumble was one of the worst play calls of the season and its execution was just as bad.
The brightest spot for the Hilltopper offense was the reemergence of Lucky Jackson as an actual threat. Jackson is usually a reliable presence, but in the loss to Louisville, his hands appeared to be harder than ice and almost as slippery.
The takeaway from the first four games of the season is that the team will find a way to steal a few games on the strength of the defense. But the Hilltoppers’ promise of a return to a style of offense similar to the one utilized by former WKU and current Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was less believable than the NCAA saying players earning money will render it destitute.
Going into this Saturday’s game against Old Dominion, the Hilltoppers will have to continue to improve. The Monarchs are a program on the rise in C-USA and have been doing an excellent job recruiting in the tidewater area.
This looks to be a much different game than last year, which was one of the most memorable endings in WKU football history. The 2018 meeting between the two schools featured three untimed downs that boosted ODU to the road victory. It’s a winnable game, but the defense will need another perfect showing and the offense will have to prove that it has a heartbeat.