The Towel Rack
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The Towel Rack

WKU Football: Matt’s Stats — Invisible Yards Costing the Tops

all like to talk about the quarterback, about the defense, and about the running backs. But what area of the game is really costing the Tops? Invisible yards and points.

This is everything special teams, weird situations, penalties and random yards not counted by offense and defensive yards.

WKU’s special teams unit has combined an impressive string of “ehh”. First of all, I believe some of these numbers are situational; who could predict TWO blocked field goals, one of which would be “returned” for 54 yards? That didn’t happen twice in the same season in the previous five years for WKU.

The punting game is solid, but with Jake Collins’ departure, the length is not there. With a punting average of 36.7 and a net of 33.6, the Topper defense is that much more constricted. The return game is average. Kick coverage is good, but punt coverage has been suspect.

Special teams is something Jeff Brohm and his staff excelled at while at Western. WKU almost always started in good field position, because this aspect of the game was crisp. This has not proven true so far under Mike Sanford. Part of it may be that Garrett Schwettman, Jake Collins and Hendrix Brakefield are not walking through that door.

Ultimately, WKU cannot sustain itself bleeding free yardage in close games.

Making the Case

First of all, how is special teams killing the Hilltoppers? WKU’s last two losses have been by a combined six points. In both of those games, field goals were blocked. There’s your six points alone, but add in the fact one was to tie the game at the end of regulation and another block was returned in a freakish game of butterfingers. All told, WKU went from snapping on the Louisville 15 to go up two scores to Louisville recovering the football at the WKU 31, a flip of over half the length of a football field. Louisville subsequently scored a touchdown to trim WKU’s lead to one point. There’s 13 points and 69 miscellaneous yards, not to mention a direct loss and a complete momentum change in another.

The 54-yard flip is completely bad luck, along with bad protection, poor decision making by WKU players attempting to pick up the ball and a poor trajectory on what should be a glorified chip shot.

Sanford has consequently decided to run 15-on-11 with an Agile bag in the air during special teams practice. Kicks are also live action in practice. Hey, gotta try something, right? Let’s give it to him. That’s pretty creative. For Western’s sake, pray it works.

In addition to kicking, punting has been…lackluster. This is absolutely not Alex Rinella’s fault, but Jake Collins’ departure was incredibly untimely.

Instead of a rugby punter averaging over 40 per punt and a possible All-American, Rinella provides a straightforward punter averaging under 37. By comparison, WKU’s opponents net over four more yards per punt than the Toppers. Rinella is incredibly consistent, but nonetheless, there goes another 72 yards.

What about kick returns? WKU actually has a slight advantage in this part of special teams. However, the difference is negligible: Four yards per return. For comparison’s sake, let’s say that’s 20 yards back to the Tops if all things were equal.

Red Zone? WKU has only scored on half of its possessions inside the red zone. Its opponents have scored every single time. There’s 20 more points.

Punt returns? WKU has returned punts three more times, yet has 17 less yards to show for it. This does not include several kick catch interference and targeting calls. We’ll cover penalties in a second.

Interception and fumble returns? Devon Key’s interception return was looking like a huge difference maker in the Toppers’ first home game, until Drew Eckels was sacked, fumbled and Maine returned the football for a touchdown. All told, WKU loses another 20 yards from returns on turnovers.

Kickoffs? WKU loses another yard per kickoff, so throw in a yard for each Topper kickoff, and WKU loses another 11 yards.

Penalties? WKU is racking up 7.3 more yards per game, so throw in another 22 yards.

So how big of a difference do these little yards make? That’s a total of 33 points and 191 yards. Imagine how things look if WKU was able to spread out 33 more points in each of its games.

So, Seriously…

What is really costing the Tops? It’s never one thing. We’d be delusional if we didn’t acknowledge that WKU’s offense has stalled in the most important moments. We’d be remiss to not question play calling. Dropped passes. Inconsistency in the running game. Giving up nearly 200 yards rushing per game. All of that is not good. However, yardage gained is not the issue. WKU actually gains more yardage than its opponents by five yards per game after playing two Power Five teams.

However, a certain quotient is luck. How much? Let’s be fair. At least the majority of that 54-yard field goal block return should not count against the Tops. At least 35 of that was just a circus. A couple of phantom/borderline penalties could certainly be thrown in there. Heath Wiggins’ targeting penalty was tomfoolery. Darden’s kick catch interference was questionable. Rinella’s horse collar was ticky-tack. There’s certainly a quotient of luck.

The rest of it is clearly these hidden yards. This yardage and points accounts for 33 of the 37 points’ difference between WKU and its opponents. Remarkably, WKU has produced more total yards and significantly more all-purpose yards than its opponents, yet is 0–3 and scores 12 less points per game than its opponents.

Mike Sanford, Jr. must find a way to get these hidden yards back in his favor, or the Tops will continue to suffer in close games.

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Matt McCay

L&H agt @safeguardky. Husband to Steph. Daddy to Riley & Hailey. Member @destinychurchbg. @WKUFootball ‘14 #WKU BA ‘14 #WKU MS ‘17 #GOTOPS @TheTowelRackWKU