WKU Football: Grading the 17–8 Win Over Army
Western Kentucky started the 2019 season at 1–2, including a hideous loss to Central Arkansas and a very average performance against a Louisville team that turns out to be a decent ACC team.
Since then, WKU has reeled off three straight, including its most impressive performance to date, an absolute bludgeoning of the current bludgeoner of college football: The Army Black Knights.
Army is used to dominating time of possession.
Army is used to constricting opponents with few opportunities to score.
Army has multiple half-quarter-length drives.
Not on Saturday.
Western Kentucky invited the visitors from West Point (and a significant contingent of fans), played Army’s game, and held them to their fewest total yards in 40 games. Building a lead to 17–0 over the entire course of the game, WKU allowed a touchdown with 1:41 remaining to allow Army to muster a 17–8 final score. The single-digit point output was the first time in 29 games for the Black Knights.
Let’s grade out the Tops, first by my Keys to Victory, some position grades, and some thoughts on coaching, and finally some overall thoughts.
Spoiler Alert: They’re pretty high.
The Keys to Victory
Put Army in Uncomfortable Game Situations: A+
WKU’s front seven did a great job of shutting down Army’s run game. Coming into the game, Army averaged 273 rushing yards per game, but against Western Kentucky, they only managed to put up a meager 137, their season-low. Left with only the option of passing, Army’s quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, Jr., only completed 5 of 12 pass attempts for 71 yards. He only completed one pass for 31 yards before WKU led by 17. Shutting down the run game for Army was the absolute key to winning this game.
WKU held Army to 0 for 6 on third down conversions in the first half and the stifling defense set the tone. Army was only able to convert on 3 of 11 third-down attempts in the game and only secured 10 first downs compared to WKU’s 26. I would say that’s a job well done.
WKU Linebackers and Devon Key Need to Combine For at Least 30 Tackles: A+
First of all, WKU did such a good job controlling the clock offensively (and shutting the Black Knight offense defensively) that there were only 48 opportunities for tackles. First of all, this goal of 30 was written with the idea Army would run 60 or 70 plays. Basically, the middle of the defense needed to account for half of the stops, in other words. Second, to understand how to calculate this number, let’s be sure we understand what Clayton White did with his defense. Instead of running his normal 4–2–5 (nickel) defense, White rolled out with a 5–2–4 defense. Basically he put three defensive tackles out instead of two, used his defensive ends as hybrid outside linebackers, and removed his extra safety in exchange for bulk upfront.
The idea behind the defense was to stuff the fullback dive play, and WKU absolutely did that, holding all Army rushers under 41 yards. Here’s the thing: Kyle Bailey, Clay Davis, and Devon Key were the only players within this Key to record a tackle. They recorded a total of 16. That did not reach the goal. However, DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones functioned as extra linebackers, so throwing in their contributions brings that total to 26. I was anticipating Army getting past the defensive line and getting into the area the linebackers needed to cover. Generally, against a military academy, the offense is so confusing that the defensive line sometimes just misses or glances the runner.
Not Saturday. The defensive line recorded 23 tackles of 49 total (assisted and unassisted) tackles. Look at that A+ and give them extra credit, as well. This was a truly incredible feat.
Finish the Two Halves: C+
This was actually an issue for WKU. First of all, Army’s only points came in the fourth quarter. Despite it being total garbage time, it still happened. Also, WKU was outscored 8–7 overall in the second and fourth quarters of the game. WKU had several opportunities to score, stalling on some drives inside the Army 30. Western had a good chance to go up 10–0 at half without question, and it could certainly be argued with 200+ yards in the first half, Western should have had more than seven points to show for it.
That being said, Army typically scores most of its points late in the second and fourth quarter because they wear down their opponents, mentally and physically. WKU beat them at their own game and wore them down by controlling the ball and the speed of the game. Army is tough and never stopped battling but ultimately couldn’t overcome.
WKU has held their opponents scoreless during the fourth quarter in the last four games and that streak came to an end when Army scored their only points of the game with 1:41 left to play. After WKU recovered an on-side kick attempt things seemed bleak for the Army Black Knights. With WKU possessing the ball for over 11 minutes in the fourth, it eliminated a fourth-quarter meltdown and any chances of a Black Knight comeback. This was a good job overall, but the Tops get dinged a good amount because they literally just didn’t finish the halves well.
Eliminate the Silly Mistakes Offensively: A
It is no secret that the Western Kentucky defense has been the difference-maker this year. Going into this game it felt clear that the offense was going to have to show up in a big way and be clean in order to beat Army. Apparently the offense only needed nine points, but nonetheless, Western was great, producing nearly 400 yards and possessing the ball for nearly 2/3 of the game.
Army’s smash-mouth style, designed to wear down their opponents, didn’t get much of a chance to perform against the Topper defense with how much the WKU offense controlled the ball. Ty Storey was great in his role of game manager. Storey completed 21 of 30 passes for 140 yards and ran the ball for 62 yards and two touchdowns. Storey needed to do his job, and he delivered. Ty seems to be proving to be a good fit for leading the 2019 version of WKU’s offense. Perhaps Steven Duncan was just a stylistic mismatch for Western’s ground-and-pound style this year. Duncan would be way more suited to a Doughty/White type of gunslinging offense.
It was clear that WKU left some opportunities on the field to put more points on the board, but honestly having no fumbles or interceptions was far more important in this match-up. Not finishing gives the Tops something to keep working on in practice in the upcoming week, but as far as any mistakes made, perhaps WKU made ten very minor ones all game, and that would be completely nitpicking it.
Win the Field Position Battle: B
Army generally dominates the time of possession, but not on Saturday. WKU had possession of the ball for 38:07 of the game, meaning Army only held the ball for 21:53. Army holds an average per game of 30:24. Before this game, Army was averaging over 32 minutes per game. WKU had possession of the ball for over 11 minutes in the fourth quarter. For an Army team that dominates in execution and possession time, what better way to knock them back a step?
Army had several three-and-outs, and WKU took advantage of the overall opportunity. However, the field position was not a result of WKU’s great defense. WKU averaged starting at its own 20-yard line over its eight possessions. Perhaps more importantly, Army had a very average field position, as well, only starting at the 27 on average. Neither team started a drive in opponent territory, and only two total drives started with less than 70 yards to gain for a touchdown. WKU did not win the field position battle, but it certainly held its own and forced Army to drive the length of the field.
Individual Game Grades
Ty Storey is establishing himself as a true game manager. He is probably never going to pass for 500 yards, or even 400. But he is definitely going to be pretty accurate and in general, take care of the football. Once again, Storey (21–30, 140 passing yards, 62 rushing yards, 2 rushing TD’s) was efficient in the air and didn’t make significant game-altering mistakes. Did he miss Jahcour Pearson early in the game for a huge gain and/or touchdown? Yes. Did he throw behind a wide-open Joshua Simon in the end zone? Yes. However, I can live with inaccuracy issues at times as long as he makes good decisions. Jesse Palmer disagrees with that statement, but then again, Carson was the good one for a reason. Quarterbacking is way more about decisions than talent. That is why superstar freshmen generally sit behind veteran starters.
Running Back: A
Gaej Walker is good. I mean, what else can I say? Tyson Helton actually explained why Gaej basically plays every down, which is something I hadn’t heard thus far this season. According to Helton, the man just never gets tired. Why sub him if he’s never worn out? He almost single-handedly outgained Army’s vaunted rushing attack (137 to 132). This was the first game he was not Western’s only running threat. Storey, Sloan, LaFrance, and Pearson. That is finally enough of a running game! You need someone else helping Walker out or the moment he has an off game (FIU and Louisville), your rushing attack is doomed. The only reason this is not an A+ is because I absolutely refuse to give an A+ to literally one running back. I don’t agree with it and I’m worried about his durability, even if he really is Superman. You have to trust someone else at some point. Do it now at your peril. Just saying.
Tight End: C+
Honestly, one catch for zero yards is terrible. However, Simon was open a couple of times and just got plain missed. This would’ve looked different, and he honestly almost caught the football despite having to stop dead and cross up and over his body. Also, Fourtenbary and Witchoskey, as well as Simon to some degree, all helped Gaej Walker and the rest of the WKU running game gain its most yards on the season by far. There were several plays the tight ends made an impact. Tight end statistics are not essential to an offense. The main thing is that they make some kind of difference. They did that Saturday.
Wide Receiver: B
Lucky Jackson finally showed up and had a decent game against a tough defense in a grinder of a game. WKU’s game plan did not really include the receivers as the main focus, or even the secondary focus. However, overall, several players produced something, and the receivers also significantly helped out in the running game. However, 125 yards receiving is just not enough. This group is yet to get 200 yards receiving once this year. I’m telling you, they will probably need it against Charlotte. They must continue to get better. They are frankly a liability so far this season, mainly because of just plain inconsistency. Who can Tyson look at before the game and say, “He’s going to catch five balls for 60 yards? Not one of them. That’s an issue.
Offensive Line: A
This is just like Gaej Walker. What else am I supposed to say besides they’re good? They gave up two sacks, but the Tops produced the most rushing yards and second-most total yards (Central Arkansas) this season against Army, of all teams on their entire schedule. WKU completely did whatever it wanted, often blowing Army back five yards into the field on some run plays. Storey could quarterback sneak and draw at will with very little resistance. Knock them back a little for two sacks (more than their average), but Army was not in the backfield that often. With only five plays for loss, two sacks, and four quarterback hits, Western players were rarely getting tackled in the backfield. These guys are on pace to give up a total of 14 sacks. I can’t emphasize it enough: That’s incredible.
Defensive Line: Extra Credit
Seriously, A+ would not be enough to describe the greatness of this unit in this game. The defensive line accounted for nearly half of the tackles in the game against an Army team that is used to getting tackled by fast linebackers and safeties. WKU’s second and third levels rarely had to exert themselves with how productive these guys were. When WKU’s D-Line was really allowed to pin its ears back and go after the quarterback, the Tops literally hit Hopkins, Jr., on five straight pass plays at the end of the game.
DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones played most of the game standing up on each end of the line, manning the quarterback as he ran his option pitch game outside. Those two combined for ten tackles on a day most defensive ends would struggle mightily. The defensive tackles busted the middle of the offense wide open, rarely allowing a fullback dive to go more than three yards. Army just isn’t used to getting dominated like that, but it absolutely started with what I think we can officially say is one of the best defensive lines in Conference USA, if not the country. Very few units have three or four guys likely to finish on an All-Conference team.
This unit has been an issue all year. With Eli Brown going down, things looked bleak the first couple of weeks of the season. However, Clay Davis and Kyle Bailey, along with several others who see the field, seem to have found a way to get the job done. Bailey looks like a borderline All-Conference type of linebacker at this point. This unit is way better than I anticipated.
Any time your defense produces a performance like this, everyone deserves credit. WKU’s secondary shut down Army’s receivers, but also helped on running back pitches, never allowing a run longer than 14 yards. Playing Army, your number one fear, besides exsanguination by way of little stabbing three to five-yard runs, is giving up a big play by way of confusion. Western didn’t do that, and that is all because of the wall set by WKU’s defensive backs. If you let an option run get outside without help, you can kiss that run goodbye. It’s going a long way and you might as well hope they step out of bounds at some point.
Cory Munson has ten touchbacks in a row over the last two and a half games. He has not kicked a football in play on a kickoff 2:00 left in the second quarter against UAB. He may not be executing every kick to perfection, but his kickoffs are on fire right now. WKU barely needs to practice kickoff coverage because of him. Go work on return, Tyson. Cory’s got this part.
Field Goals: C-
Despite his greatness on kickoffs, Munson may be hitting the freshman wall in the kicking game. He is now 3-for-6 in his past two games. The one he made against Army doinked off of the left upright and skittered in. Munson has developed an obvious tendency, and that is always hooking his kicks left. Most of his misses this season have come from the left hash, but the ones that didn’t all missed left. I don’t believe he has a single kick not have the distance, but he must learn to straighten out his kicks or compensate for the hook. Either one works and no one would care as long as he makes his field goals and extra points.
Looking back, Haggerty looks like he missed all of a punt, but really it still went 40 yards. Haggerty is so good that we can’t give him a perfect score unless he averages over 50. This WKU team has so many surprises, but he has to be one of the most shocking. Sure, he was supposed to be good, but he is averaging 45.4 yards per punt with one touchback on 20 punt attempts. To recap, that’s five percent likelihood of kicking it too far, five yards above average, and at 35 percent is equally as likely to both end up inside the 20 and kick a punt for 50 or more yards.
To put a bow on this, true freshman John “Down Under Thunder” Haggerty would be tied for 24th in the NFL in punting average, tied for 15th in touchback percentage, and 21st in punt percentage inside the 20 if he was a professional.
Coaching and Game Management Grades
Tyson Helton Decision Making: A-
After a bleak start to the season many fans feared a repeat of the last few seasons; however, Tyson Helton has proven to be a good decision-maker. One thing I will continue to disagree with, and I think a lot of people will on this, but running a Power or simple counter play up or sort of up the middle on third down is not going to sit well with fans, especially when you’ve done it at least three times and it hasn’t worked. WKU ran Steven Duncan on 3rd-and-10 against Louisville, Walker on a 3rd-and-12 against Louisville, and Walker on a 3rd-and-7 against Army with more than seven minutes left in the second quarter in a game the Tops led 7–0.
However, this is clearly going to be a consistent idea. It’s ultra-conservative, but maybe this is a coach knowing his team. Against Army, burning clock is the right move. I’m not sure it’s that great when you’re losing. Other than this issue, Tyson Helton is doing a heck of a job. Running the quarterback draw on third down in the second half won the game for WKU. It was utterly simple and brilliant.
Clayton White Defensive Game Plan: Extra Credit
Do you know how you had that class that offered you enough extra credit to score a 120% without ever turning in homework? That was Clayton White’s defensive game plan. First of all, he runs out a 5–2 defense (Five linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs) when he usually runs nickel, he puts his superstar defensive ends in the best positions to make plays and use their versatility and basically function them as stand-up linebackers, and he hides his depth issues at linebacker. Honestly, running a 5–2 defense should be a much easier transition, since the only difference, albeit significant, is exchanging a safety for another big interior lineman. I would be surprised to see WKU use this front again since it was so successful.
Ultimately, Army could not function offensively. They were completely crippled. Army was too busy trying to establish its basic offense to think to pass. Clayton White continues to position himself as someone that could prove to be a head coaching candidate down the road at WKU or somewhere else. Good for him.
Bryan Ellis Offensive Game Plan: A+
Another future head coach, Bryan Ellis (The GOAT) did a great job finding a way to make a sometimes anemic offense execute in the crucial moments. The decision to run the quarterback draw resulted in 62 yards for Storey and an offense producing its most overall against FBS competition. WKU’s coaching job in this game was just awesome. 38 minutes of possession was what WKU did to UTEP last season. Army is just slightly better than UTEP, wouldn’t you say?
Third and Fourth Down Defense: A
Army specializes in putting itself in 3rd-and-manageable. WKU specialized in forcing Army into 3rd-and-long. On most occasions, Army needed more than four yards. Army struggled to a total of 5-of-13 combined on third and fourth down. Army converted on two short fourth downs, but WKU for the most part straight got it done late in the possession. WKU not only stopped Army on third down, but discouraged Army from going for it on fourth down, a feat in itself. Army generally goes for it on a 4th-and-short, and Army only felt confident enough to go for it twice.
WKU was so fundamentally sound and needed to be. Both teams only committed two penalties each. One was an inevitable “blindside block” (AKA helluva block) on a return, and the other was a roughing the passer. Pattycake apparently counts as unnecessary roughness these days. WKU’s defense was perfect. There were surely less than ten missed tackles all game, and that is an absolute maximum. There may not have been five, to be honest. I can count three plays that could have busted open for Army. One was on a pass. Only one was a fullback dive. One was a pitch to the running back that could have turned a corner if not for WKU’s speed on the edge of the defense. Three plays that possibly could have that didn’t spell great discipline defensively.
Offensively, no penalties with a great performance like this is so impressive. WKU continues to get penalized at a fairly low rate. WKU averages under 50 yards per game in penalties, so the Tops really keep it pretty clean as a unit.
Overall Grade: A-
Sure, WKU’s offense could be better. Sure, they could have capitalized and really embarrassed Army. The potential was there but think of the expected outcome so far this season. Very few would have picked WKU over Army before the season began. Very few would have WKU at 4–2 under any combination, let alone losing to UCA and sitting on a winning record halfway through the season.
This was a masterful performance by the defense and an offense that dominated control of the game by bludgeoning the opponent to death. It wasn’t a gorgeous shootout, but it was quite a display. I picked WKU to win, but never in 1,000 years would I predict WKU would break Army’s trend of nearly three years. I thought WKU needed to score well into the 20s to have a chance. Boy was I wrong. They needed nine points to beat Army.
WKU is now 3–0 versus the Army Black Knights all-time. So who should really be considered the underdog in this match-up next time they play (9/11/2021)?
The Tops showed up with a chip on their shoulders and beat Army in dominating fashion on every stat line possible and took the W and positive momentum heading into Homecoming versus Charlotte. Charlotte better be scared of WKU’s hard hitting defense and steadily improving offense, because the Tops are going to be a force to be reckoned with.