After jumping out to a 5-2 overall record, a 4-0 start against league opponents and a comfortable two-game lead in the race for the Conference USA East Division, the WKU football team (5-4, 4-2 C-USA) is currently in the midst of its first extended losing skid this season.
Despite a 1-2 start to the 2019 campaign, which featured rough non-conference losses to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Central Arkansas and Power 5 Louisville, the Hilltoppers never dropped more than one game in a row before their midseason turnaround.
That’s all changed over the last two weekends. WKU has dropped back-to-back C-USA games against Marshall (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) and Florida Atlantic (6-3, 4-1 C-USA), allowing the Thundering Herd and Owls to move into a tie for first place in the C-USA East Division.
“I think our kids really just battled,” head coach Tyson Helton said. “We have a saying, ‘One snap and clear.’ May have a bad play or they might run a couple of good plays, but we just move onto the next play and just keep battling. And if you do that, eventually good things will happen, and that's why you saw some of the momentum changes back and forth tonight.”
After falling into a 17-0 hole on the road at Marshall, the Hilltoppers got off to a great start against FAU — WKU opened up a 14-0 run on the Owl defense, as graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey and senior receiver Lucky Jackson each found the end zone.
Shades of early-season struggles began to creep in when the Owls completely shifted the momentum in their favor during the second quarter. FAU cornerback Chris Tooley picked up a Storey fumble and took it all the way to the house, putting the Owls behind by only seven.
From there, the Hilltoppers’ former two-touchdown lead vanished. The FAU offense rattled off three more unanswered touchdowns to build a sizable 28-14 advantage. WKU did manage to bring the game within four points at 28-24, but the Owls scored to vanquish the Hilltoppers.
Storey said WKU is committed to getting back to its winning ways.
“Yeah, it’s not a good feeling,” Storey said. “Losing is not what we want to do here and we need to do everything we can to get back to where we were. I know with the guys around me and our coaches, we’re going to make sure we do everything we can to do that this week.”
Following two straight slip-ups against C-USA opponents, questions surround the Hilltoppers, who were surging and playing lights-out football as recently as two weeks ago.
A key culprit in the mystery is certainly turnover margin — the WKU offense has turned the ball over seven times in the past two games, while the WKU defense has forced none of its own.
Helton said there's not one specific reason for an increased number of turnovers in recent weeks, but the Hilltoppers must clean up the mistakes in order to win late in the season.
“A little bit of everything,” Helton said about why turnovers are up. “I’ll own all of that. It comes down to me putting the guys in good situations. Try to have the right plays and protections so that they can be successful. A little bit has to do with taking chances here and there. If you’re going to win down the stretch, you can’t have the turnovers. That’s an obvious thing.”
As for the debilitating momentum shifts WKU has been suffering lately, Helton said it’s just part of the game and the main focus for the Hilltoppers is having a chance to win late in games.
“That’s the beauty of college football,” Helton said. “That’s just football, in my opinion. We want to play disciplined football. We don’t want to have turnovers. We want to have the momentum in our favor at all times. That’s just the beauty of football. You’re going to have momentum swings. We talk about getting to the last five minutes and try to go win the game. We got to the point tonight. That’s what we try to do. Everything else in between is just football.”
A pair of losses to both Marshall and FAU makes it highly unlikely that WKU can make up enough ground to represent the East Division in the C-USA Championship game, but the Hilltoppers are still sitting at five wins — just one win away from clinching bowl eligibility.
WKU will look to bounce back when the team travels to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the conclusion of non-conference play against Power 5 opponent Arkansas (2-7, 0-6 SEC).
The Hilltoppers’ meeting with the Razorbacks will be a homecoming for Storey, who transferred to WKU in February after spending 2018 as the primary starting quarterback at Arkansas.
Redshirt junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone said WKU is focused on what lies ahead.
“Just don’t let one game define us,” Malone said. “Just keep going. We just have to go to practice and watch film and get ready for Arkansas.”
Kickoff in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday. The game, which is Arkansas’ Senior Day matchup, will be broadcast on SEC Network.