‘Tenacious D’: Hilltopper defense impressive in 2-0 start to C-USA play

WKU defensive back Trae Medows (7) tackles UAB tight end Hayden Pittman (10). WKU defeated UAB 20-13 at Houchens-Smith stadium on Saturday September 28, 2019.

Alec Jessie

The WKU football team has staked its reputation on a high-quality defense to start the year 2-0 in Conference USA play.

The victory over defending C-USA Champion Alabama-Birmingham (3-1, 0-1 C-USA) on Saturday was a statement win for the Hilltoppers, who have now matched their conference win total from a year ago.

First-year head coach Tyson Helton has seemingly found a recipe for success with the Hilltoppers. Although not perfect, elite defense and a safe offense have put WKU over the top against its first two C-USA opponents.

WKU (2-2, 2-0 C-USA) created a template for Saturday’s 20-13 win over UAB three weeks prior in the Hilltoppers’ 20-14 victory over Florida International on Sept. 7.

The WKU defense stifled the FIU offense that evening, allowing only 217 yards of total offense, 66 yards passing and 3.3 yards per carry on the ground.

Much of the same occurred this past Saturday against the Blazers — the WKU defense shut down the UAB offense, only allowing 298 total yards.

After forcing only one turnover all season and playing three games without grabbing an interception, the Hilltoppers picked off UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III four times.

UAB couldn’t get it going on the ground either. The Hilltoppers limited the Blazer rushing attack to just 117 yards and three yards per carry. Redshirt junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone was an absolute force, recording 10 tackles and two sacks.

Up 20-13 with 6:38 remaining in the game, the WKU defense made the victory-clinching stop when Malone sacked Johnston III on fourth down to turn the Blazer offense over on downs. Helton said this was the ideal game he hoped his defensive unit would play.

“From the defensive side, they played exactly how I hoped they would play,” Helton said. “I knew coming into this game we were going to have to create turnovers to win this game and we had multiple on the night. They played exactly how I envisioned them playing.”

The WKU secondary has turned in completely different results in two conference wins as opposed to the Hilltoppers’ two non-conference losses.

Central Arkansas’ Lujuan Winningham and Louisville’s Tutu Atwell burned the Hilltoppers’ secondary. Winningham hung 222 yards and three touchdowns on WKU in the Bears’ 35-28 upset, while Atwell went for 145 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-21 win in Nashville.

But in two C-USA wins, WKU has only allowed one receiver — UAB’s Austin Watkins — to eclipse 50 yards. WKU has the best passing defense in the league through two conference games, allowing C-USA opponents to average just 123.5 passing yards per contest.

WKU is also ranked third in scoring defense against C-USA opponents at 13.5 points per game, trailing only North Texas (3.0 PPG) and Southern Mississippi (13.0 PPG).

Even with an offensive pedigree coming in, the defense has taken over for Helton and the Hilltoppers. From key stops to stuffing the run, the WKU defense has shined brightest.

Darvin said the bye week, while early, came at a good time for the defensive unit.

“It came at a right time for us,” Darvin said. “There was a big emphasis of we knew what we needed to do. We knew we needed to stop the big plays and get the ball. We harped on that for two weeks and it really showed.”

The offense has been a different story, however. While the defense has been busy dominating opposing offenses, Helton’s squad has been unable to muster up many points.

Through two C-USA games, WKU is ranked seventh out of 11 teams in scoring offense against league foes. The Hilltoppers are averaging just 20 PPG, far behind first-ranked North Texas (45 PPG) and even top-five ranked teams like Southern Miss (31.0 PPG) and Charlotte (27.0 PPG).

The offensive execution didn’t pick up significantly in the absence of redshirt junior Steven Duncan, who started the season but will miss the rest of 2019 after surgery on his left foot.

In his first start with the Hilltoppers, Arkansas graduate transfer Ty Storey threw for a modest 189 yards on 15-of-24 passing with one touchdown. Storey also led WKU in rushing with 26 net yards on 13 carries because the Blazers refused to let redshirt junior Gaej Walker get going.

While hardly a poor performance, Helton said Storey left some plays on the field, including taking a key sack late in the fourth quarter that took WKU out of field goal range.

Storey said now that he’s the starting quarterback, he and the rest of the offense must find ways to improve.

“Continue to get better,” Storey said postgame. “There were definitely some little mistakes. We got to take advantage of those key third downs. We did what we had to do to win, but obviously going forward we want to improve and get better as an offense.”

The run game has also taken a turn for the worst. Walker could only produce 19 yards on 12 attempts, while no other ball carrier even touched the rock for WKU.

Helton was very open about taking responsibility for the lackluster offensive performances thus far.

“I’ll be my worst critic,” Helton said postgame. “You guys criticize right along with me, because we have to find a way to help our defense and get the ball in the end zone. We got to get a lot better with the situational football on the offense.”

Helton and company will look to buck this troubling offensive trend in conference play against Old Dominion (1-3) next Saturday. ODU hasn’t played a C-USA game yet, but the Monarchs have played close games against East Carolina, Virginia Tech and No. 21 Virginia in 2019.

Kickoff in S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Virginia, is set for 5 p.m. The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.