Tops find plenty to clean up after road loss at Ohio State

Published 4:13 pm Monday, September 18, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Saturday’s 63-10 lopsided road loss to No. 6 Ohio State exposed a few weaknesses for Western Kentucky’s football team.

Part of preparing for Saturday’s 11 a.m. road game at defending Sun Belt Conference champion Troy is recognizing and correcting some of the flaws that ailed the Tops this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio.

Considering it a bit of fall cleaning within the program.

“We’ve got to continue to grow as a team, we’ve got to get better as a team – they all know that,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said during Monday’s weekly news conference. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to clean up in all three phases that will give us an opportunity to win down the stretch in the season. To beat Troy, we’re going to have to clean up the mistakes that we had in previous games for sure.”

Against the Buckeyes’ unyielding pressure, the Hilltoppers made a few mistakes they had previously avoided in home wins against South Florida and Houston Christian.

WKU (2-1) committed four turnovers in the game after having none in the previous two. Tops fumbled three times and lost two, including one that went for an Ohio State touchdown. The Buckeyes also tallied two interceptions, with one resulting in Jermaine Matthews Jr. tallying a pick-six with a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown that marked the final scoring in a tough day for the Tops’ offense.

“We had done a really good job over the last two weeks of taking care of the football,” WKU offensive coordinator Drew Hollingshead said. “At the time, I think we were one of the tops in the nation in turnover margin, which is always what you’re striving for. Like I said, point of emphasis but it’s always something you work on, you know what I mean? So when it materializes in a game like that, it’s frustrating because you’re not going to beat many people, much less the No. 4 team in the country if you turn it over four times. We always preach ball security, always attention to detail within practices and things like that.

“Our guys know that they’re not immune to putting it on the ground or throwing interceptions. We’re going to practice those details, get better at them and move forward.”

A pair of ill-timed penalties when the game was still in the balance didn’t help. Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, the Tops got their biggest defensive play of the day when Hosea Wheeler sacked OSU quarterback Kyle McCord and the ball popped loose for a fumble recovered the Tops’ Deante McCray at the WKU 44-yard line.

The Hilltoppers converted a fourth down when quarterback Austin Reed ran for four yards on fourth-and-2. That got the Tops in the red zone at the Ohio State 16 – or would have, if not for 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on wide receiver Blue Smith at the end of the play. Two plays later facing a third-and-4, WKU wide receiver Moussa Barry was penalized for going out of bounds and then returning to make a 5-yard catch – the illegal touch-pass infraction resulted in no catch and a loss of down, forcing WKU to settle for Lucas Carneiro’s 43-yard field goal.

“You talk about being really smart, penalty-wise,” Hollingshead said. “I don’t think it was the smartest move by our guys to put us in position like that, to kick us out of a chance to score a touchdown. But that goes back to all of us as a team, as a program. I didn’t think that the stage was too big for our guys. I thought they were ready to play, I thought they played hard and had a good look in their eye. But those little things like that will cost you.”

The Tops were still very much in the game down 14-10 after Reed connected with Malachi Corley on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 8:10 left in the second quarter, but the final eight minutes of the first half are some WKU would do best to forget.

The Buckeyes answered with a lightning bolt, as McCord hit Marvin Harrison Jr. in stride on the first play from scrimmage for a 75-yard touchdown strike.

After WKU turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, Ohio State once again instantly burned the Tops with a one-play touchdown drive when DeaMonte Trayanum broke loose for a 40-yard TD run that put his team up 28-10 with 4:13 left in the first half.

WKU fumbled away its next possession, Ohio State scored again, then the Tops tried and failed on another fourth-down conversion. OSU went 58 yards in three plays for another stunning touchdown drive that took just 20 seconds to push the lead to 42-10.

“If you look back through the game, there’s a lot of things to be corrected obviously,” WKU defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said. “Again, I’ve got to do a better job. In the game from the other day, I’ve got to have a better performance. As we go into this week, obviously trying to shore some things up. There are a lot of positives to kind of take away. We actually go eight minutes left in the second quarter, we’re down 14-10. We played tough, we battled, we played hard and we played smart to that point in time. Then we go through a stretch there the next eight minutes where we don’t play very well – again, that’s my fault, those are things that I take the blame for.

“We come back in the second half and hold them to one touchdown. I thought our guys battled, I thought they fought, I thought they stayed positive with each other and did some really good things. We were able to create three fumbles the other day, we were able to get one of them – had an interception off a batted ball. I thought there were some really good individual performances.”

The Tops had their moments on offense as well, with Corley returning from injury to tally eight catches for 88 yards and a score. But OSU’s consistent pressure revealed a few cracks that Hollingshead and the offensive coaching staff are busy identifying and sealing ahead of Saturday’s visit to Troy, Ala.

“We told our guys (Sunday) to play to the standard of what we think Western Kentucky football can be,” Hollingshead said. “That’s a good barometer to play against – we all want to play against the best, that’s why you come to Western Kentucky, to play against really good competition. And to play against a program like Ohio State that’s really buttoned up on offense and defense and special teams, and the amount of attention to detail and strain you have to have to play after play consistently match up … I think our guys kind of recognize that and we’re trying to reach that level as well.”

Helton knew rolling the dice against the Buckeyes was risky – WKU went 3-for-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts, with two of those turnovers on downs giving Ohio State a short field that it covered for touchdowns.

The Tops left Ohio State with a loss, but also the knowledge that Helton won’t play it cautious. That $1.8 million guarantee Ohio State paid WKU for the game doesn’t hurt, either.

“Pretty good physically – got some bumps and bruises, but I think we’ll actually get some guys back that have been out, so that’s good to see,” Helton said. “Mentally I never worry about our football team. They’re always good. They love the competition piece. We took a tough loss against a really good Ohio State team. Sometimes when you get beat pretty decisively – which it was very decisively, they got after us pretty good – you kind of clear it out pretty quickly.

“I like the look in our guys’ eyes. I think they get it. In our team meeting yesterday they were good, everybody was good. And like I told the team after the game, I played aggressive and I did things to give us a chance to try and win. And if it doesn’t go your way, you’re going to lose by a lot. That’s what happened. We could’ve lost the game in a respectable way, but again I’m not going to play that way. And our team knows that.”{&end}