‘Enjoy the moment’: WKU aiming to triple 2018 win total against Western Michigan in First Responder Bowl

The WKU football team takes the field before playing against The UAB Blazers at Houcens-Smith Stadium. WKU won 20-13.

Drake Kizer

The WKU football team (8-4, 6-2 C-USA) is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Hilltoppers aren’t overlooking their opportunity to reach nine wins in 2019.

WKU will meet Western Michigan (7-5, 5-3 MAC) in the First Responder Bowl on Monday, searching for a victory that would triple the WKU football program’s win total from 2018.

A ninth win would also match the Hilltoppers’ combined win total from the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

2019 Conference USA Coach of the Year Tyson Helton, who orchestrated the third-best turnaround in the nation this year at a five-game improvement, has guided the Hilltoppers to a bowl contest that will be played in Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas this weekend.

Following a 31-26 win over Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 30, Helton expressed his desire to play the bowl game before Christmas.

He got Dec. 30 instead, which is the latest the Hilltoppers have ever played in five previous bowl appearances as a Football Bowl Subdivision member.

Time heals all wounds, and Helton has now grown fonder of playing in the much later First Responder Bowl, especially because the game sets up a lot of extra preparation prior to a meeting with a WMU program that’ll be playing in its fifth bowl game in six years.

“I love the fact that the bowl’s at the date it is because it’s really like another spring football for us,” Helton said on Dec. 21. “We’re able to develop our young guys a little more, so you kind of get a spring ball in before you actually have spring ball. That’s been really, really good. I feel like we’ll be farther along once we get back in January for training and all those kind of things.”

“Right now, we’re in a good place,” Helton continued. “Guys are healthy, everybody knows what to do. You know, we just got to be peaking at the right time. Right when we get to the bowl, we got to be at our best.”

WKU is also playing in its fifth bowl game in the past six years, posting a 3-1 mark compared to the 1-3 record the Broncos have recorded in their previous four bowl games.

The one blemish on the Hilltoppers’ FBS bowl game résumé since a 24-21 loss in the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl is a 27-17 loss to Georgia State in the 2017 AutoNation Cure Bowl.

WKU, riding a three-game winning streak to bowl eligibility, will meet WMU for the first time in over 72 years with a shot at improving to 4-2 in FBS bowl games on the line.

The Hilltoppers trail the Broncos 11-3-1 in the all-time series, including losses in each of the last three meetings, but each of the previous 15 matchups occurred between 1923 and 1947.

Additionally, the First Responder Bowl will also be the final game for 13 WKU seniors, a collective group that produced a 28-23 record on the Hill over the past four seasons.

“I felt like all our seniors have done a fantastic job down the home stretch,” Helton said. “Especially in November, they really took the bull by the horns and led the football team.”

“It’s going to be great for them to get that last game in,” Helton continued. “The team’s excited to play for them because everybody knows it’s their last game.”

The WKU offense has posted a solid campaign, ranking 23rd in time of possession, tied for 24th in sacks allowed and 52nd in passing offense nationally. But the unit has also struggled in some areas, ranking 88th in total offense, 90th in scoring offense and 107th in rushing offense.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said on Dec. 12 that he wants his players to “A. have a good time, and B. be ready to play” when the Hilltoppers take the field in Dallas.

“From the day when we figured out who we were playing ‘till the day before the game, we’ll be still continuing to game plan,” Ellis said. “That stuff never stops. We kind of have a motto around here that the hay is never in the barn. There’s always something. If there’s a good play that comes up the morning of the game, we’ll install it, put it in and get it ready to go.”

Ellis said on Dec. 19 that the WKU offense has “shown up every day ready to work,” which will be necessary against a WMU defensive unit that boasts the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year in junior linebacker Treshaun Hayward.

“They’re big, strong kids,” Ellis said. “They got a lot of pop. Their D-line and linebackers, they remind you of an SEC football team as far as their size and stuff. They’re a base defense, they do what they do well, and like every week, we’ll have a challenge on our hands. We’ll have to put our best foot forward and give ourselves a chance to go win the football game.”

Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey, who took home 2019 C-USA Newcomer of the Year recognition, said the Hilltoppers “really want to go out with a bang.”

“We’ve been watching a lot of film on ‘em,” Storey said. “Just being able to see our opponent now, there was a week there we weren’t going to be able to watch anybody because we didn’t know who we were playing. But now that we know who we’re playing, it’s good to be able to get back in the film room and really study our opponent.”

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Miles Pate, a 2019 All-C-USA First Team member, said if WKU just plays its game, “everything else will take care of itself.”

“A good defense — a good defense that we need to stop,” Pate said about what he’s seen from WMU on film. “We just got to stick to our game plan and stick to what we do best. If we do that, I think we’ll come out on top.”

Redshirt senior receiver Lucky Jackson, also a 2019 All-C-USA First Team member, has 192 career receptions, which is just two shy of Nicholas Norris for second all-time in WKU history.

Jackson is also only 15 yards shy of 1,000 for the season, and he said the Hilltoppers “have to take this game just as serious as any of the other games from a preparation standpoint.”

“It’s a good feeling to still be playing football this late,” Jackson said. “I mean, you look around the conference and see how many teams that aren’t playing, whose seasons are completely finished. To have a chance to go up and hang another banner and get a ring is just an amazing opportunity that we got to seize.”

On the other side of the football, the Hilltopper defense has been dominant all season, and the unit’s national rankings assert that fact — 6th in third down defense, tied for 17th in first down defense, 21st in scoring defense and tied for 29th in total defense.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White said on Dec. 12 that despite WKU going exactly one month between games, the Hilltoppers don’t have time to relax during their preparation.

“Well, really, a lot of people say we have a lot of time, but time flies,” White said. “We don’t want to get caught in the, ‘Oh no, it’s too late to get the game plan in and too late to start getting some things kind of ironed out.’”

One area where WKU has struggled at times is stopping the run, which could spell trouble ahead of its meeting with WMU senior running back LeVante Bellamy, who ranks 10th in the country with 1,412 yards rushing in 2019.

Bellamy also leads the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns, and White said on Dec. 19 that WKU will need to “have the right focus and intensity” to slow down a “very methodical” WMU attack.

“As a program, they’ve been very good offensively over the years,” White said. “Coach Lester, Coach Moreland, those guys both played there, so they take a lot of pride in it.

“The main thing on their offense is their running back,” White continued. “He’s at almost 1,500 yards. I think we got to do a great job of understanding his favorite runs and their favorite plays and just make sure we do our job like we’ve been trying to do.”

Redshirt junior safety Devon Key said “practicing for another game” with the team’s seniors has been great. Key said that while WKU’s 15 bowl practices have been about 45 minutes shorter than in-season practices, the Hilltoppers have “still put in the same work.”

“It’s a big bowl game for us because we haven’t been in a year,” Key said. “We have to go down there and show that we’re back, like getting in the groove — that Western’s back at the top.”

Junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone, who was named 2019 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, said he came into the season “just looking to dominate” and wasn’t worried about outside noise, a mentality he said will stick with him as his “dreams come to reality.”

“Just keep coming out here in practice and getting better every day,” Malone said. “I thank God that I got a Player of the Year award, but I’m just going to keep continuing doing me.”

Redshirt senior nickelback Ta’Corian Darden, a 2019 Burlsworth Trophy nominee, said Bellamy has “top-notch” speed.

WKU has worked on being “gap sound” during its preparation, but Darden said he’s also made sure to take some time to enjoy his last days as a Hilltopper.

“Yeah, you try to enjoy the moment because you know it’s your last one,” Darden said. “Each practice you try to enjoy the moment, go out there, have fun, interact with the most teammates as you can, try to talk to the most teammates as you can out there and just go out there and have fun and enjoy the moment because you don’t get it back.”

WKU will be the visiting team on Dec. 30, occupying the visitor’s locker room and East sideline in a 32,000-seat facility on the campus of Southern Methodist. But the First Responder Bowl will also be a home game of sorts for Helton, a former quarterback at Houston.

Helton said his players know what to do and how to do it, but the Hilltoppers will do some more “fine-tuning” to make sure they’re ready to perform against the Broncos.

“Western Michigan’s a good football team,” Helton said. “I expect it to be a battle, and I say it all the time, I see it coming down to the last five minutes of the game and who plays the best will win. But I think we’re at a good point where we’re at right now.”

“I feel like if we had to play today they’d be ready to play,” Helton continued. “It really goes down to those games like all season where if we play good defense, don’t turn the ball over on offense and make our plays on offense, then we’ll be fine.”

Game notes

Bowl Game: First Responder Bowl (Dallas)

Matchup: WKU (8-4, 6-2 C-USA) vs. WMU (7-5, 5-3 MAC)

Date: Monday, Dec. 30   

Kickoff: 11:30 a.m.

Site: Gerald J. Ford Stadium (32,000)

All-Time Series: WMU leads 11-3-1

Last Meeting: WMU 39, WKU 0 (Nov. 1, 1947)

Television: ESPN

Announcers: Dave Neal (play-by-play), DJ Shockley (analyst), Dawn Davenport (sideline reporter)

What they’re saying…

Head coach Tyson Helton: “[WMU is] good in space, good tacklers. They play their defense very well. Very sound. They don’t give up a lot of big plays. They make you go the distance. That’s the biggest thing, we have to be able to sustain offensive drives, try to get some explosive plays in there. Defensively, if we can play good defense. They’re a very good offensive unit. Their running back and quarterback are good players, and a very established offensive line.”

Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis: “You’re getting ready to play the game, you’re trying to keep the kids motivated, keep them from getting bored, you know? We got a long time before the game starts. So, you try to do some new things with ‘em, really get your young guys in there a good bit. Trying to almost steal a couple of practices for those guys.”

Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey: “It’s fine. We were ready to play, so whenever they announced that [the bowl game was late], we were completely fine with it. Christmas, when you’re playing football, is kind of celebrated whenever you can. You work around it.”

Redshirt senior receiver Lucky Jackson: “With us having this much time, it’s easy for guys to get lax or slack off. But Coach Helton and our staff are harping on us to stay into it. We still have to take the necessary steps to make sure we come home with a win.”

Defensive coordinator Clayton White: “We’re kind of hitting it running right now trying to make sure that our guys are doing a good job understanding our opponent on December 30th, Western Michigan. I think it’s really good to get ‘em back out there now to get ‘em back in that mode, get their eyes back right and their feet back right. Just ready to strap it up.”

Redshirt junior safety Devon Key: “Last game against Middle, we put it all out there for the seniors so they could get that win at home, and hopefully we can send them out the right way by getting their last bowl game win.”

Junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone: “I see that hard work pays off. We came in every day, put the work in and it’s just a blessing.”

Sports Editor Drake Kizer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.