Was your team a preseason Conference USA favorite? Does it have a leaky offensive line? Are the receivers not getting enough separation? Are quarterback turnovers killing drives? Is your coach planning to simplify things in week 3? It may sound like your beloved Bulldogs, but these are all realities facing the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky this week as well.
In what figured to be an early season matchup (and CUSA Championship game rematch) of the two most complete teams in Conference USA, each squad is currently asking lots of questions of one another in the film room.
Both the Bulldogs and Hilltoppers have gotten off to rather inauspicious starts through two games, both struggling with old rivals in FCS games (Eastern Kentucky & Northwestern State) and then unexpected outcomes against schools from Power 5 conferences (Illinois & Mississippi State).
In Tuesday’s Louisiana Tech press conference, Bulldog head coach alluded as much saying, “This is a game that has had a lot of conference implications the last couple of times we have played. We have played them four times in three years and the home team has held serve. They have been great battles and close games. I don't see how this game will be any different. These are two of the better teams that have represented the east and west two of the last three years. I think this has all the makings for rivalry week.”
Here is what we know about the ‘Tops so far. Jeff Brohm and his high-powered offense are gone to Purdue and WKU brought in the youngest FBS head coach at the time, Mike Sanford Jr. to lead the charge on the Hill.
Sanford is a 35-year-old former quarterback at Boise State who was most recently the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame for the last two seasons. The son of a coach, Sanford has been a full-time coach since 2009 following stints at Yale, WKU, Stanford (three years), and Boise State.
Skip Holtz had this to say about Sanford, “I think he is an excellent football coach. I followed him for a long time. I followed his father for a long time, who happens to be on his staff. I think Mike is a bright, young football coach who has an awful lot of energy and does a really good job of coaching."
On offense, WKU returns preseason CUSA Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Mike White (6’4, 225) who completed 67% of his passes for the fifth most yards (4,383) in FBS in 2016 while maintaining a 37-7 TD-Interception rate. Last season White average 10.5 yards per attempt, however, the offense has sputtered to an extremely slow start by any standards in 2017.
Through two games, WKU is averaging just 19 PPG, 251 yards passing, and 6.8 per attempt. Comparatively speaking, last season WKU led the country in scoring at 45.5 PPG and threw for 336.8.
The offense only returns three other full-time starters, two being offensive lineman Brandon Ray (6’2, 300) & Dennis Edwards (6’1, 305). Ray, the starting left guard was named to the preseason CUSA team as was Nacarius Fant, but as a punt returner. Edwards is making the shift to Center from Right Guard.
Just this week, the Left Tackle job has become an open position battle between senior Jimmie Sims (6’4, 295) and sophomore Parker Howell (6’4, 290). Right Guard Miles Pate (6’2, 320) & Right Tackle Matt Nord (6’6, 320) finish out the offensive line that has struggled to give White time to throw the ball (5 sacks) as well establish a run game as WKU has averaged just 1.9 yards per carry and 53 yards per game on the ground.
At receiver, the final starter returning is Nacarius Fant, who leads a speedy group of receivers that have been unable to get great separation in 2017. Lucky Jackson (6’1, 185), a redshirt sophomore, had a breakout game against EKU with 144 yards on only six catches including a 66 yard TD catch but struggled against Illinois to the tune of five catches for 26 yards. Fant (5’9, 185) senior slot receiver with ten starts a year ago, had ten catches for 110 yards against the Illini. Quin Jernighan (6’3, 210) has eight catches, but just 59 yards through two games. Outside of these three, eight other WKU receivers have made catches, but none have stood out.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers have stood out under first time defensive coordinator, Clayton White. White made the change from a 4-3 Base to a 4-2-5 at the perfect time as the secondary is the most experienced piece of the 2017 defense.
Tech fans may remember fifth-year Safety Marcus Ward (6’3, 220), who sat out in 2016 due to a knee injury but was the CUSA Defensive Player of the Week following the 2015 game where he totaled a career high 11 tackles, 2 TFLs, a forced fumble and 2 pass breakups. Ward anchors the backfield that also returns preseason CUSA first teamer Joe Brown (5’10, 195) at CB. Devon Key (6’1, 205) rounds out a solid group as a redshirt freshman safety who totaled 12 tackles in the loss at Illinois
In addition to an experienced secondary, WKU’s best player may be linebacker Joel Iyigbuniwe who has played lights out in two games totaling 21 tackles and 2.5 TFLs. Another preseason CUSA player, defensive tackle Chris Johnson (6’1, 285), has had a solid start to the season with 6 tackles, 1 TFL, and 2 QB hits. Keep an eye on returning starter, Derik Overstreet (6’2, 250) at defensive end as well. Overstreet missed the first game but has started in 36 games in his career and looks to play a part off the edge in getting to J’mar Smith.
On special teams, the Hilltoppers have struggled a bit punting with just a 30.9 Net Punt Average, but punter Jake Collins was also a preseason CUSA pick. Fant and Kylen Towner (5’8, 175) were also picked as CUSA preseason selections at punt returner and kickoff returner, respectively.
Alex Rinella will handle kick off duties and has just two touchbacks in eight kickoffs. Ryan Nuss started 2016 as the primary place kicker but lost his job after the first four games going 5/8. In 2017 he is 1/1 with his attempt coming from 44 yards out.
Louisiana Tech has a huge opportunity to grab an early victory against a talented, but inexperienced team on the road. WKU would like to try and establish the run early so the talented Tech defensive ends will need to contain the outside and let the combo of Durman/Farris stuff the gaps. The defensive backs need to be able to play press coverage and make WKU beat them over the top to allow the defensive line time to get pressure.
Offensively, Holtz mentioned simplifying the offense for his young QB which could pay huge dividends. For Tech to be successful, they need rely on the running game to set up the pass. For the first time in a few years, neither team is ready to blow up the scoreboard and I think the team that wins the time of possession will ultimately win the football game.
Prediction – Tech 28, WKU 24