NCAA football: Florida Atlantic 35-24 over Western Kentucky

Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton (center) walk on the sideline Saturday, November 2, 2019, during Florida Atlantic's 35-24 win at Houchens-Smith Stadium. (Bac Totrong/photo@bgdailynews.com)

As Tyson Helton has increased his confidence in an evolving offense, the more comfortable he is in taking risks. The big plays promised when Helton took the Western Kentucky job are beginning to show, mainly thanks to the connection between quarterback Ty Storey and top wideout Lucky Jackson.

But when those plays don’t work, some of the results haven’t been just empty throwaways to try on the next down. Whether by fluke circumstances in the secondary or general oversights in certain blocking assignments, Helton’s losses when he chooses to take risks have become detrimental.

Helton points to two plays he took full blame for in WKU’s 35-24 loss to Florida Atlantic on Saturday – the sack-fumble on Storey led to a FAU scoop-and-score and Storey’s fourth-quarter interception on a play when WKU was trying to seize momentum from a blocked field goal.

Both plays were critical in a day of four turnovers in an 11-point loss.

“It’s a fine line knowing when to take them and when not to take them,” Helton said during his Monday news conference. “Having the right situation, I’m a little cautious sometimes because of our team and the right time to do it just based upon that and the different people we’re playing. As the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more and more confident to take the shots with our guys the last couple of weeks.”

Saturday’s loss to FAU wasn’t the first time the head coach rightly took responsibility for negative results on plays where he specifically was rolling the dice. He mentioned it on a few plays when Storey was sacked an uncharacteristic four times against Charlotte on Oct. 19.

The first play that sparked FAU’s comeback Saturday was another gamble. WKU ran a run-pass option play on second-and-6 from its own 36 on the left hash. Storey was winding up to hit Jackson down the seam, but linebacker Akileis Leroy was left unblocked on Storey’s blind side. The hit from behind caused a sack and fumble returned for touchdown.

“I could’ve game planned that better and said let’s go ahead and max protect that,” Helton said. “I didn’t. That’s why we had the sack fumble. That was on me and not our kids.”

The second play, Storey threw a similar pass down the field to Jackson that the two connected on in the first quarter for a 54-yard touchdown. The route was different, but the angle of the pass was similar.

What looked like triple coverage wasn’t designed that way. A collision on an underneath route allowed the cornerback to drop back deeper into the field once he saw where Storey was going with the pass.

The result of the play basically killed any momentum WKU had of taking the lead after a blocked field goal. The Hilltoppers had scored 10 unanswered on offense prior to the play and when trying to take a shot, it backfired.

“At the end of the day it’s a gut feeling and that’s what good play-callers do,” Helton said. “It’s not the play, it’s when to call the play. We’ve been right on a lot of them. I’m always going to be critical on the ones that don’t work out.”

WKU connected on trick-play scores against Charlotte between a flea-flicker and a wide receiver pass for a score near the goal line. Last Saturday, Storey threw for a career-best 380 yards and had three plays longer than 40 yards to Jackson.

When it works, everything checks out. But WKU’s staff is publicly owning the mistakes otherwise.

“We are going to play very aggressive,” offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said. “The one thing coach Helton and I, when we were hired here, is (say) we don’t play scared. We’re going to go out there and try to give our kids the best chance to win. … We do have to do a better job of being smarter when to call them. We are going to take chances and take shots and try to create big plays.”

Ellis said WKU will have to get started early if it wants to fire off enough points to get an SEC road win at Arkansas this Saturday. The Razorbacks (2-7) are allowing 7.4 yards per pass attempt and 6.3 yards per play overall.

Helton said being a first-time head coach and having the weight of all decisions falling on him hasn’t affected his approach to future play calls when he wants to take a chance.

“I don’t feel any different than if I was an offensive coordinator,” Helton said. “Really, if you talk to Bryan Ellis, he’d say the same thing. He’d say it’s my fault and I should’ve set it up better. That’s more of a coordinator mindset in my opinion, but the beauty of being a head coach is you’re the one that gets to decide whether to do it or not. I’ll always be open and honest. If I felt something different didn’t go right, I’m going to say that’s on me.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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