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WKU football had a surprise stumble. Does the bounceback start in 2018?

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Mike Sanford dealt with more adversity than expected in his first year in Bowling Green, and now he’s got a youth movement to deal with.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough when there’s almost literally no place to go but down.

Mike Sanford took over the WKU job having put together an aggressive résumé. In less than a decade, he went from Yale tight ends coach to WKU quarterbacks coach to Stanford quarterbacks coach to Boise State offensive coordinator to Notre Dame coordinator to WKU HC. He impressed everyone who needed impressing, and he put up steadily strong numbers.

Sanford’s lone Boise offense ranked 14th in Off. S&P+, and his first Notre Dame offense ranked 11th. And as a bonus, his father is a 40-year coaching veteran with two head coaching stints of his own under his belt. (Conveniently, Mike Sr. is now WKU’s running backs and special teams coach.) Mike Jr. was meant to become a head coach, and quickly.

His odds of succeeding as a head coach are solid, too. Eventually. But in retrospect, there was no way that his first season back at WKU was going to feel anything but disappointing. The Hilltoppers had just spent two unsustainable seasons in the S&P+ top 20, going 23-5 and earning Jeff Brohm the Purdue job. Regression to the mean was simply going to happen, and boy, did it happen. A bowl bid and top-90 S&P+ finish would have felt acceptable before 2015. It did not in 2017.

It wasn’t just a “Hey, what can you do, regression happens” situation. WKU returned enough pieces to make you think “regression” would merely mean nine to 10 wins and a top-60 finish. Quarterback Mike White was back and still had receivers Nacarius Fant and Lucky Jackson. The defense still had tackle Chris Johnson and linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe.

White still led an efficient passing game, and Iyiegbuniwe still had 11.5 tackles for loss. But the run game cratered following the loss of back Anthony Wales and three all-conference linemen, and the defense stumbled across the board, losing both its run prowess and its pass rush as the front seven depth thinned. Plus, offensive line coach Geoff Dartt underwent brain surgery to remove two tumors in the middle of the season. That’s a lot for anybody to deal with, much less a first-time head coach.

Add in a predictable number of first-timer mistakes — maybe trying to make too many changes too quickly and whatnot — and you start to piece together how a fall from 23-5 to 6-7 can happen. Sanford gets all relevant mulligans, but he also faces a lot more pressure heading into year two. And he’ll go into that season without White, Fant, Johnson, Iyiegbuniwe, and a handful of other 2017 starters.

Offense

2017 WKU offensive radar

In its first year under coordinator Junior Adams, WKU threw first, threw second, and threw third. The Hilltoppers ran just 47 percent of the time on standard downs (124th in FBS and 13 percentage points below the national average) and ran 10 percent of the time on passing downs.

Let’s put that another way: WKU threw more than Washington State on passing downs. More than a Mike Leach team!

When your team becomes more philosophically extreme than the air raid master himself, there’s probably at least some necessity to it. As in, you had to pass because you had no hope of running. WKU had a decent No. 63 ranking in rushing success rate, but no run game in the country was less explosive than this one. To emphasize that point, here are the eight FBS teams with the fewest 20-yard rushes in 2017:

123. Kansas (8)
124-127. Buffalo, ECU, Virginia Tech, Wyoming (7)
128-129. Fresno State, UTEP (6)
130. WKU (0)

Zero. There wasn’t even an accidental big run play — no random missed assignments, no successful fake punts, nothing.

Taking that into consideration, it’s a miracle WKU was as good at throwing as it was. White completed 66 percent of his passes with a No. 23 passing success rate ranking.

He had to get the ball out of his hands pretty quickly, considering opponents knew they could rush the passer with no hesitation, especially on passing downs, and his sack rate did go up from 4.1 to 7.4 percent, but he posted impressive numbers, all things considered. And he got better as the year progressed, raising his passer rating from 121.6 in the first five games to 150.7 in the last eight.

In terms of efficiency, WKU was just fine among its C-USA peers. Big plays, less so.

2017 WKU offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Adams will have a chance to reset WKU’s identity in 2018. In fact, necessity might drive changes again. White’s gone, as are three of his top four receivers — Fant, tight end Deon Yelder, and receiver Cameron Echols-Luper, who combined for 168 catches, 15 touchdowns, and nearly half of White’s targets.

WKU did a nice job of getting the backups’ feet wet. Outside of those four targets, four other wideouts (and running back Jakairi Moses) were each targeted at least 26 times each, and six others saw at least nine targets each. Many of these players were freshmen and sophomores.

In theory, that exposure pays off. Junior Lucky Jackson (39 catches, 600 yards, three scores) is now the leader of the receiving corps, junior Quin Jernighan and sophomore Xavier Lane are potentially solid possession options, and sophomore Jacquez Sloan has major big-play potential. Sanford also brought in four three-star receivers, any of whom could carve out an early niche.

FloSports: FloFootball Eastern Kentucky vs Western Kentucky
Lucky Jackson
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

It’s most likely Drew Eckels vs. Steven Duncan at QB. Eckels has waited his turn, losing a battle with White back in 2015 but sticking around all the same. He has completed 15 of 24 passes over three years and packs decent mobility with his 6’3, 215 frame, but a great spring from either the sophomore Duncan or redshirt freshman Davis Shanley could render Eckels a full-career backup.

It would behoove WKU to figure out how to run the ball a little bit. Each of last year’s top four backs return, though I feel “top” should be in quotation marks. Senior D’Andre Ferby, juniors Quinton Baker and Marquez Trigg, and Moses, a sophomore, combined to average 3.5 yards per carry — it’s amazing how hard it is to prop your averages up without even the slightest of big play boosts.

Moses did show a little potential. He gained at least 5 yards on 42 percent of his carries (right around the national average but far more than his battery mates) and caught 20 of 26 passes as well. The best-case scenario has him taking a couple of steps forward. That, or WKU hitting the lottery with a youngster like three-star redshirt freshman Joshua Samuel or mid-three-star true freshman Garland LaFrance.

But here’s where I tamp down hope again: the line loses three starters, including two all-conference guys, guard Brandon Ray and tackle Matt Nord. They and tackle Jimmie Sims combined for 83 career stats, leaving behind three-year starter Dennis Edwards and some part-timers. Three other returnees have combined for 18 starts, and there’s a chance the starting lineup features three redshirt freshmen and sophomores.

Defense

2017 WKU defensive radar

The best thing about WKU’s defense in 2017 is that it prevented big gains nearly as well as WKU’s opponents did. The Hilltoppers ranked 35th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays) and 18th in 20-yard gains per game allowed (3.8). They forced opponents to work the ball methodically.

Of course opponents still averaged 29.1 points per game (70th), so they were pretty fine with working methodically. And they became more and more fine with it as the year progressed. Just as White began to find his footing, the WKU defense became more of a sieve, allowing a 105.9 passer rating through the first eight games and a 144.8 over the last five.

Injuries and constant shuffling caught up to coordinator Clayton White’s defense, which began the year on fire. WKU didn’t allow more than 23 points in a game in any of its first six contests and produced an average percentile rating of 74 percent (equivalent to a top-35 performance). But they gave up at least 27 in each of their final seven (average percentile rating: 37 percent) and needed two shootout wins to avoid losing all seven games.

All that shuffling produced a pretty large base of contributors, at least. Seven linemen, four linebackers, and 10 defensive backs all made at least 10 tackles each (in all, nine freshmen and sophomores were in this group of 21), so while star linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe and two of the top three linemen are gone, plenty of experience returns. Plus, Sanford signed 11 three-star defenders. That might not mean much for 2018, but it could dramatically improve depth soon.

The most optimism comes from the back. Safeties Devon Key, Ta’Corian Darden (a nickel back), and Drell Greene all return after combining for 15 tackles for loss and 13 passes defensed, and corner DeAndre Farris, one of the only DB regulars to play all 13 games last year, had 14 passes defensed, which was top-40 in FBS.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Devon Key
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The front six is a little thinner. Losing Iyiegbuniwe (who declared early for the NFL Draft after making 11.5 TFLs), Johnson, and end Derik Overstreet means losing by far your three biggest play-makers. There’s depth of experience, but you need havoc, too, and a top-50 stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) was a nice complement to big-play prevention.

Getting tackle Evan Sayner back will help. The senior defensive tackle missed the second half of the season after setting a nearly 10-TFL pace for the first half. He’s as close to a proven play-maker as WKU has, though sophomores and recent star recruits like tackle Jeremy Darvin and linebacker Demetrius Cain could be ready for larger, more disruptive roles. One hopes, anyway.

Special Teams

There’s value in preventing returns. Jake Collins averaged just 40.2 yards per punt in 2017, but WKU ranked 37th in punt efficiency because Collins had 18 punts downed inside the 20 and only 12 total punts were returnable.

Collins is a strength, but Ryan Nuss’ place-kicking left something to be desired — he made three of four field goals over 40 yards but missed five of 12 under 40 — and a pair of good kick returners (Echols-Luper and Kylen Towner) are gone.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Wisconsin 12 -24.9 8%
8-Sep Maine NR 19.5 87%
15-Sep at Louisville 29 -16.4 17%
22-Sep at Ball State 117 4.8 61%
29-Sep Marshall 62 -4.0 41%
13-Oct at Charlotte 126 8.0 68%
20-Oct Old Dominion 114 9.4 71%
27-Oct Florida International 120 10.7 73%
3-Nov at Middle Tennessee 83 -4.2 40%
10-Nov at Florida Atlantic 31 -15.8 18%
17-Nov UTEP 130 18.2 85%
24-Nov at Louisiana Tech 70 -6.7 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 90
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 100 / 73
Projected wins 6.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.7 (45)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 85 / 87
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -1.5
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (46%, 69%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.4 (-0.4)

Heading into 2017, it felt like Sanford was set up for a nice first year followed by a setback. He inherited a nice crop of seniors (plus Iyiegbuniwe), but then he’d have to take a mulligan year when these guys left.

Instead, the mulligan came early. The thin defense cracked, and the run game was horrible, and after a 5-2 start, WKU crumbled to 1-5 down the stretch. And now comes the rebuild.

Sanford and his staff did a nice job of getting as many youngsters as possible involved, and that could pay off. And the home schedule should help. While the Hilltoppers face three projected top-35 teams on the road in likely losses, they play six teams projected 114th or worse, and four of them come to Bowling Green.

That means that, despite only a No. 90 S&P+ projection, they are favored in six games and have at least a 35 percent chance of winning in nine. That could very well produce a bowl bid if they find a reasonable level of competence at quarterback, and by 2019 a large crop of exciting freshmen and sophomores could be ready to take over and move the Toppers back up the C-USA standings. Sounds good in theory, at least.

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