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Mike Sanford Takes Stock of WKU After 1-1 Start

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The Tops’ head coach talked what’s working and what’s not for the reigning Conference USA champs.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers sit at 1-1 after an iffy home win over Eastern Kentucky and a rough loss to Illinois in Champaign. The Monday following the Illinois game, Sanford addressed the media in Bowling Green to talk what’s behind and what’s ahead of his team for the year. Sanford opened with some of his thoughts from their most recent outing.

“Had a chance to look at the film from the Illinois game. Disappointing effort from our whole football team to not come out of there with a victory. It starts with myself getting all three phases in a place to get a victory. That’s our expectation. We truly believed going into that game at Illinois that we were going to find a way to get a victory and we just fell short because of penalties. We fell short because of breakdowns in protection. And we fell short because of breakdowns in the run game.”

In an effort to hopefully improve the mentioned deficiencies in pass protection and in the run game, Sanford went on to announce that we could see a new starting left tackle on Saturday against Louisiana Tech. Jimmie Sims started the first two weeks of the year at that spot. Sims also had significant playing time in 33 games prior to this season. However, Sims, a senior, will compete for his job against redshirt sophomore Parker Howell over the course of the week at practice. The new starter won’t be announced until game day.

Howell saw some minimal action in each of the first two games of the year, along with in five games last year as a redshirt freshman. According to Sanford, the biggest difference between Howell and Sims, other than their experience, is that Sims is one of the most physically gifted offensive lineman on WKU’s roster, while Howell has been particularly impressive in absorbing the teachings of O-Line coach Geoff Dartt.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama
Jimmie Sims may lose his spot as Mike Sanford reopens position battles.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Sanford went on to talk about how he believes that his offensive line has played well overall, but some errors at critical moments have led to offensive mistakes.

“Quite frankly, and from my standpoint, some of the stuff that I wanted to get done offensively, we weren’t far enough in our system, in terms of experience within the system, to execute that at an extremely high level. I think the other part of it is just losing technique at the offensive line position...That led to some TFLs in the run game, led to some hits on the quarterback.

In the very first play of the game, we have Xavier Lane in his first college snap running right by the starting corner for a Big Ten team. We get jostled on the hit, That ball is completed, it’s a completely different feel to the game.”

Moving on to other aspects of the offense, Sanford talked about how after two weeks against live opponents, it’s become clear who his favorite weapons have become. Nacarius Fant is somebody that came up when Sanford was interviewed right after the game as a guy who made a particularly good impression on him. Fant turned in a career day with ten catches for 110 receiving yards.

Now that Sanford knows who can produce yardage, he’ll likely look to make them more of a focal point moving forward.

“That’s the great thing about the first two weeks of the season: we learned who are our guys that when the lights come on at the receiver position, at the running back position, who are the guys that we need to make sure get their touches. And with that, it kind of simplifies what you do from a personnel packaging standpoint.

Playing with a little bit less frequent rotation at the receiver, running back, and tight end position will I think will allow us to play with a little bit more tempo and a little bit more confidence.”

The Tops utilized quite a few different formations in an attempt to spread the ball around against Illinois. But they were unable to convert it to points and punted seven times. For WKU’s sake, hopefully their running game can get back on track as well after netting six rushing yards against the Illini.

It’s undeniable that the high point for WKU thus far has been the defense, led by junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe. Sanford reiterated that sentiment on Monday.

“One [thing] that I felt on the field was that our defense was playing really well and flying around. When I put the [Illinois] film on, it was even better than I felt on the field, in terms of their effort. That’s an incredibly improved unit and with a lot of first time starters. I mean look at Devon Key. What a tremendously positive surprise he’s been. 20 tackles in two weeks. He’s playing at a high level. Iggy’s playing as well as he’s played in his career here.

I think what you’re seeing is Coach Clayton White’s system is really a fit for the personnel we have here and there’s a terrific buy in in terms of the effort and that’s going to be big in this LA Tech game.”

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Illinois
Redshirt freshman safety Devon Key (2) makes a tackle against Illinois.
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Sanford closed his presser by stating that he’s approaching the Tops’ first Conference USA game of the season against Louisiana Tech with great gravitas.

“This is a game that has determined the champion of the actual conference. Every conference game that we play has to be approached as a championship week and that’s going to be big this week is just our mindset is everybody needs to give a championship level of effort because that’s what we’re really playing for.”

Western Kentucky faces Louisiana Tech on Saturday night at 6 PM CT in Bowling Green. That game can be seen on Stadium.