The WKU football team (5-3, 4-1 C-USA) suffered a tough road loss last weekend in Huntington, West Virginia, but the Hilltoppers will be looking to rebound quickly when they return home for a meeting with Florida Atlantic (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) on Saturday.
Much is at stake for WKU in this key Conference USA matchup — a win would keep WKU in sole possession of first place in the East Division, but a loss would give both FAU and Marshall (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Hilltoppers.
A loss could also put the Hilltoppers in position to drop out of first place in the East Division if the Thundering Herd can defeat Rice (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) on the road this weekend.
The latest battle between the Owls and Hilltoppers also holds postseason bowl implications — with a win, either FAU or WKU will post its sixth win this season and secure bowl eligibility for their university during the first weekend in November.
Head coach Tyson Helton said his squad took last week’s 26-23 slip-up against Marshall in stride, and they’ve accepted there’s nothing else they can do about it now.
“The guys really handled it like pros,” Helton said. “They didn’t bat an eye. I felt like in the locker room nobody got down. You laid it all on the line, on the field, our guys left it out there. We got on the bus and I felt like it was very positive.
“Guys yesterday were great in meetings. I think they’ve already moved on. They’ve got their minds towards FAU and they know it’s a big game coming up, so it’s been really good.”
Offensively, the Hilltoppers picked up their game against the Thundering Herd last Saturday.
The unit’s 23 points were the second-most the WKU offense has scored in conference play, and its 426 total yards were the most it’s gained in conference play.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said the main focus for the offense is it must give itself chances to win late in games.
“We just got to do a better job late in the game,” Ellis said. “We preach in this program all the time to get us to the last five minutes and we’ve got to go make a play. This week we didn’t get that done, but we have multiple times this season.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lack of confidence. We have a bunch of grown men in that locker room and they aren’t going to sit in there and pout. They realize you have seven days to figure it out and you got to go out and do it again.”
Although the offense sputtered at times against Marshall, graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey and senior receiver Lucky Jackson have established a deadly connection.
Storey and Jackson have linked up 21 times for 309 yards and a touchdown in the past two games, which has given the Hilltopper offense a true No. 1 receiving target.
Jackson said the rhythm between the two begins simply with connecting on throws.
“It’s just completions,” Jackson said. “When you see those plays made, it makes you become more comfortable with each other and him being able to trust me throwing that ball up there and the coaches to call those plays and knowing we’re going to execute them. I think that’s the main thing.”
The Hilltopper defense took a bit of a step back last Saturday — the 26 points and 401 total yards allowed were by far the most the defense has allowed in conference play.
Even with the tough loss, defensive coordinator Clayton White said his unit is in the right frame of mind ahead of its impending matchup against FAU.
“Very tough loss last week,” White said. “Our guys are definitely in the right mindset. Coach Helton does a really good job of just setting that tempo — setting the mindset that every single day you have to come out and move on to the next day and be ready to play some football.”
Second-half adjustments have been key for the defense’s success this season, especially when the Hilltoppers have faced adversity from opposing offenses.
Redshirt junior linebacker Clay Davis said the defensive unit must take coaching and play with a short memory to have success against the Owls and beyond.
“Really what the coaches see,” Davis said about adjustments. “Just making really good changes to what we see, what we need to make changes to. Really just play by play. That has to be the message, how bad do you want it? Just play the next play. Forget about what happened in the past — just play all out the next play.”
FAU leads the all-time series over WKU 7-3, and WKU is still seeking its first victory over the Owls since head coach Lane Kiffin took the reins prior to the 2017 season.
The Hilltoppers’ two losses in Kiffin’s tenure at FAU have both been lopsided — 42-28 in 2017 and 34-15 in 2018.
In the 2019 battle between the two squads, WKU will welcome FAU to Houchens-Smith Stadium for a game that could decide the East Division race.
Helton said he’s really happy WKU is playing this contest at home, and he’s expecting the WKU fanbase to come out and be loud for a massive C-USA showdown.
“Every conference game is huge, especially down the stretch,” Helton said. “This is a playoff mentality for us. Everybody has one loss in the East — you can’t afford to have two if you’re going to be in the hunt for it, so this is kind of a do or die deal.”
Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. on Saturday.
The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.
Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at [email protected] Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.