The Tops are averaging 23.9 fewer points per game and two fewer yards per play this season -- much of which is due to the significant drop in average yards per rush attempt, which is down three full yards, from 5.4 to just 2.4 yards with each carry.
Balancing the running game with the passing game is one of football's classic "chicken or the egg" situations. Is a team's inability to run handicapping its passing game? Or is its inability to throw hindering its rushing attack?
In the case of Western Kentucky, it would seem to be the latter -- which is odd considering the Tops have Mike White, the 2016 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, behind center. Still, it's tough to ignore the constantly crowded boxes that the Hilltoppers (3-2, 1-1 C-USA) have encountered ahead of their next test against Charlotte (0-6, 0-2) at 3:30 PM ET Saturday at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, KY.
"It's frustrating because there's nothing we can do about it," running back Jakairi Moses said of the eight-man fronts being deployed by opposing defenses. "They stack the box and there's really nothing you can do."
More often than not, Moses and co., are running into something that looks like this:
Head coach Mike Sanford also acknowledged that the running game is being neutralized by loaded boxes, but the culprit is not White. Sanford has consistently praised his senior quarterback's decision making, both in the pass and run games. Instead, the first-year coach has taken issue with the lack of big plays being created by Western Kentucky's wide receivers.
"We have to win 1-on-1 balls down the field," he said. "We have to complete those balls. We took seven shots (against UTEP) and completed one. That can't happen."
"Teams are going to continue to play man coverage and give 7-8 in the box. If we can't win on the perimeter, we're going to find the guys that are going to win on the perimeter for us. It's my job to make sure I put the right guys on the field who are going to make those plays."
With this in mind, there is an increased focus on competition within the Western Kentucky receiving core heading into this week's homecoming matchup with Charlotte. Among the players who need to step up for the Tops, Sanford has placed particular emphasis on Cam Echols-Luper's continued emergence as well as the need to find more playing time for slot receiver Kylen Towner.
Sanford is also looking for more from the team's No. 1 wide receiver, Lucky Jackson.
"Lucky has been in the starring role and he's made some plays. He certainly has," Sanford said. "But he's got to make more and he's capable of making more."
Jackson set career marks with 144 receiving yards and a 66-yard touchdown reception in the Toppers' opener vs. Eastern Kentucky, but hasn't been able to find the big play in any of the team's past four games.
"Playmakers have to make plays in critical parts of the game," Sanford said. "It really does allow us to open up the playbook -- when we do hit our shots down field, it allows us to be more effective in the run game."
If Jackson and White can recreate their opening night success on Saturday, the running lanes will open, the scoreboard operator will be busy, and homecoming in Bowling Green will be one hell of a party.
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