The Western Kentucky football team has not lived up to expectations so far this year.
Whether those expectations were too high or whether the Hilltoppers (4-4, 1-3 Sun Belt Conference) have simply failed to meet them is debatable. Four weeks remain to try to improve on last season’s 7-6 record and fifth-place finish in the SBC.
“I don’t think everybody really got their head down,” junior wide receiver Willie McNeal said Monday. “It’s not something we haven’t faced before. We’ve just got to get that ‘W.’ We know what it takes, we know what we’ve got to do – fix the mistakes and get back to work.”
Western Kentucky faces Georgia State at noon CDT Saturday in Atlanta. A win there would get them one step closer to becoming bowl eligible with a required six wins.
But many thought WKU would be further along at this point in the season. Proven coach Bobby Petrino was brought in to take over a program that former coach Willie Taggart left in better-than-average condition.
The Hilltoppers were predicted to finish fourth in league play in a preseason vote by the league’s coaches behind co-favorites Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe and two-time defending champion Arkansas State.
They’re nowhere near that right now, sitting in seventh out of eight teams and one loss away from being tied for last.
“Yeah, you know, the players are competitors,” Petrino said. “What you want to do is work hard and get better, perform better the next week. We need to go worry about one thing, and that’s about winning this game right here.
“We’ve got to go to practice each day and work hard at getting better, work hard at improving in our skills and improving as a team and just worry about one thing and that’s to win this game.”
Petrino needs four wins to become just the second coach at WKU to win more games in his first season than the coach he followed in his final season won.
Only Taggart (2-10 in 2010) improved in his initial season over David Elson’s final season (0-12).
“There’s always an adjustment to the schemes and the newness, and we’re not experienced in what we’re doing,” Petrino said. “I think when you look at the last two teams we played (losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy), they were very experienced in what they were doing. They had quarterbacks that were experienced in how they run their offense, how they executed, so there’s a lot of newness.
“But I do like the fact that our players have had good attitudes and are giving us really good effort. It’s not a lack of effort. We’re just not executing well enough to get the ball in the end zone.”
Petrino came to WKU with a 75-26 record in his college career, a 74 percent winning percentage. That percentage is down two percent after starting at 4-4 through eight games on the Hill.
He was given a team that lost all four defensive linemen to graduation, three players to the NFL – defensive end Quanterus Smith, tight end Jack Doyle and offensive lineman Adam Smith – and went 2-5 in its last seven games of 2012 with a loss to Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
The Hilltoppers are one of only 12 teams nationally to rank among the top 30 in both total offense and total defense. Yet they’re in serious danger of missing out on the postseason and conference title hopes are but lost.
“There’s nobody that works harder than he does,” WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said Monday. “The amount of time that he has given our program, and his assistant coaching staff, has been tremendous. They’re in their office all the time, they’re always working, they’re always trying to get better and I feel great about that.
“I think part of what we are dealing with right now is the adjustments that come with change. We had huge expectations and excitement throughout the spring and the summer, which was great. We embraced that. But I think it sort of led people to believe we might be something that we aren’t. We’re doing a whole lot more right than we are wrong, it just isn’t translating to wins right now. It seems like a play here or there has kept us from winning three or four games.”
What might turn out to be good news for WKU is its next two games come against teams a combined 3-13 and the next four are against teams with a combined 11-20 record.
Three of the next four are also on the road, where the Hilltoppers are 9-5 since the start of the 2011 season.
“This is the one (week) that challenges you,” Petrino said. “When you lose two in a row, it challenges your leadership, it challenges your togetherness, and we have to work on that. We have to work on it everyday.”