Timing isn't good for sagging Hilltoppers to start U of L series


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Mike Sanford can thank - actually blame might be a better word - his predecessor for the predicament he's in this weekend with his reeling Western Kentucky (0-2) football team preparing to play Louisville (1-1) Saturday night at 7:30 in Cardinal Stadium, where the visitors are a 23-point underdog.

Several years ago, Jeff Brohm, the former UofL quarterback who was then WKU's head coach, agreed to a three-year series with his alma mater. The teams will play in Nashville next season, then in Cardinal Stadium again in 2020.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, with Western riding high behind Brohm's explosive offense after he replaced his boss, Bobby Petrino, when Petrino moved to Louisville in 2014. However, three years later Brohm took the Purdue job after leading WKU to a 30-10 record and two Conference USA championships. Enter Sanford, the son of Mike Sanford Sr., who was briefly Charlie Strong's former offensive coordinator at UofL and is a current WKU assistant.

"I hate to say it," Brohm told the Courier-Journal earlier this year, "but the only thing I really ever asked our athletic department to do was to try to get Louisville on the schedule. We got them on there three straight years, and unfortunately, I'm not there to play it."

Just as unfortunately, Sanford Jr. is. He got off to a good start in Bowling Green, winning five of his first seven games. But since then the losses have been piling up and the Hilltoppers head to Derby City having dropped four straight and seven of their last eight.

The four-game skid is the longest since former coach Willie Taggert, now at Florida State, lost six in a row bridging the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

The latest defeat was an especially bitter one as the Hilltoppers roared from 21-0 ahead to lose 31-28 to FCS opponent Maine in their home opener last Saturday. The Black Bears clinched the victory when they bloocked Ryan Nuss's game-tying field goal attempt with 47 seconds remaining. WKU started the season with a 34-3 loss at Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason poll.

At least it's not like the Toppers haven't been competitive most of the time in falling to Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt, Marshall, FIU, Georgia State in the Cure Bowl, Wisconsin and Maine, losing those games by an average of 14.7 points.

As you might expect, Sanford is adamant that WKU will turn things around.

"I fully do expect us to bounce back from this loss," Sanford told reporters after the setback against Maine. "I do. I know nobody else out there does right now."

Sanford also says he is looking forward to playing U of L and would also "love" to get Kentucky back on the schedule.

"When you're hired as a head football coach. . .to whom much is given, much is expected," Sanford said in his Monday press conference. "I've heard everything that could possibly be said about my own dad in the stands, and I lived with that as a child.

"That doesn't make it easy for my family, my kids, but at the end of the day, we signed up for this. I took this job knowing that full well. I love this challenge. I love going back to the drawing board after a tough game and finding solutions."

As if WKU didn't face enough obstacles, the task against U of L got harder when starting quarterback Drew Eckels suffered an injury to his "upper body" as he was tackled on a scramble during the Toppers' last offensive play against Maine. Sanford says Eckels' availability is questionable for Saturday and it will be a game-time decision.

The redshirt senior was already banged up after being knocked out of the Wisconsin game in the fourth quarter. Against Maine, Eckels completed 23-of-41 passes for 347 yards, with three touchdowns. But he was also sacked six times and lost a fumble.

Four quarterbacks are all listed as possible starters -- Eckels, a fifth-year senior but a first-year starter; redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan; redshirt freshman Davis Shanley; and true freshman Kevaris Thomas.

Stanley played briefly against Wisconsin in his college debut. Thomas was in for one play against Maine, and Duncan was suspended for the Wisconsin game for an April DUI arrest and didn't play against Maine either.

Louisville leads the all-time series 19-12, but Saturday's game will be the first since the Cards rolled over Jack Harbaugh's WKU team 63-34 in the 1998 season, John L. Smith's first as UofL's coach and Cardinal Stadium's inaugural season (then Papa John's Cardinal Stadium).

"We expect that stadium to have a lot of WKU fans (who live in Louisville) there who are alums of this university, because they're proud up there," Sanford said. "They know they're in a U of L-and-UK-dominant state. And they want to stand tall and wave that towel with pride. And we want to go represent them with pride."


Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.






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