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Western Kentucky inexperience shows against Wisconsin; Tops lose 34-3

Drew Eckels’ first career start could have gone a bit better, while the defensive performance was better than many expected.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Friday night’s game, the Wisconsin Badgers were favored to beat the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers by 36 in Madison. While the margin ended up not being that large, the Big Ten team in this game flexed their muscle against the C-USA squad on national television.

Wisconsin totaled more yardage on the day as well with 491 total yards compared to WKU’s 305 and held the ball for eight more minutes.

In the first quarter, the WKU defense held the Badgers to just seven points with a 47-yard touchdown run by Heisman candidate running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor would go on to score again in the second quarter from 30-yards out following a UW field goal to make it 17-0. Taylor finished the day with 18 carries for 145 yards and two touchdowns.

UW would also add a 2-yard touchdown pass from Alex Hornibrook to Kendric Pryor shortly before the half.

The Tops would get their only points of the game in the first minutes of the second half with a 25-yard field goal by Ryan Nuss. That score was set up by a 48-yard pass from Drew Eckels to Jacquez Sloan, WKU’s longest play of the night. Wisconsin tacked on a field goal of their own a few short minutes later.

Wisconsin extended their lead for the final time with a 43-yard pass from Hornibrook to Garrett Groshek a two minutes into the fourth quarter.

Eckels’ first career start didn’t go as hoped with the fifth-year quarterback going 15 of 26 for 167 yards. Eckels also ran for 38 yards on seven carries. On the receiving side, Sloan’s 48-yard reception was his only catch of the game. The Tops’ top receiver of the game was arguably Xavier Lane, who caught 4 passes for 40 yards. Several of Eckels’ passes were dropped in big moments, however, showing room for improvement from the receiving corps.

As a whole, several things contributed to WKU’s downfall in this game. One was the all-too-familiar look of the running game. The Tops netted 124 rushing yards on the day with nine different players having a rushing attempt. Another was huge mistakes in the red zone. WKU tried a trick play on the Wisconsin 10-yard line where Quin Jernighan tried to throw a pass to Eckels, but it was easily picked. The Tops also had a turnover on downs in the red zone and lost a Davis Shanley fumble in the red zone late in the game.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

WKU also committed their fair share of mental mistakes in this game, with 6 penalties in this one. Included in that were several holding and chop block penalties on the young offensive line that dramatically changed the momentum of drives.

Defensively, there was reason to be excited about WKU’s potential based on this performance. That group gave the offense plenty of chances to score. WKU defenders penetrated the pass protection of Wisconsin’s All-American laden line to sack Hornibrook three times. Hornibrook was also hurried three other times Friday night. Masai Whyte led the team in tackles with 11 (and a sack). Ta’Corian Darden also forced a fumble in this game.

The other thing to be excited about in this game was the budding friendship between Big Red and Bucky the Badger.

Next, Western Kentucky will prepare for their home opener on September 8th against Maine at 6:30 local time. With any luck, they’ll be able to take what they need away from a learning experience like this and move forward.