Hilltoppers not dwelling on chance to reach bowl eligibility with win against rival Marshall

Redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty signals upward following WKU’s 67-66 overtime win over No. 19 Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia. Doughty threw for 491 yards and eight touchdowns to five different receivers in the upset victory. The Hilltoppers’ win spoiled the Thundering Herd’s bid for an undefeated season. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Alec Jessie

After two straight home wins against Army and Charlotte, the WKU football team (5-2, 4-0 C-USA) will hit the road this weekend for a matchup with Marshall (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) that’ll have implications for both the Hilltoppers and the Thundering Herd going forward.

WKU is in sole possession of first place in the Conference USA East Division at 4-0 in league play, while Thundering Herd are currently tied for second place with Florida Atlantic at 2-1 against conference foes after defeating the Owls 36-31 on Oct. 18.

The Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd have also developed a fierce rivalry since WKU joined C-USA in 2014.

The so-called Moonshine Throwdown — which Marshall leads 6-4 — has produced some of the most memorable games in recent WKU history, including a 67-66 overtime win for WKU in 2014 when Helton was the Hilltoppers’ offensive coordinator.

With a win on Saturday, the Hilltoppers would win their fifth straight game, post their sixth win in 2019 and secure bowl eligibility — all before the calendar turns to November. A win would also add some major padding to WKU’s current two-game lead in the East Division.

While the stakes of this week’s game are obvious, head coach Tyson Helton said he’s focused on taking the season one game at a time.

“It’s always in the back of your mind, but it’s not something I talk about with the team,” Helton said about having a chance to clinch bowl eligibility. “It’s just one game at a time mentality. I want to be more than bowl eligible. That’s the goal. Let’s win a conference championship. That’s the name of the game. Then everything else falls into place. It happens naturally.

“Would I be very happy to be bowl eligible? There’s no question about it. I just want to go and play Marshall, get a win at Marshall and keep on going.”

There will certainly be no shortage of desire on either side of this matchup since Homecoming festivities at Marshall are scheduled to coincide with WKU’s visit to Huntington, West Virginia.

But for defensive coordinator Clayton White, the matchup is also a personal homecoming.

Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said on Monday that White played at NC State when Holliday was a coach there from 2000 to 2004.

White said Holliday came to NC State his senior year, and the duo later developed a close bond because of White’s desire to become a coach after his playing career.

“I’ve known Doc for probably 19, almost 20 years,” White said. “We had a great relationship. Just through football and I kind of had a feeling that I wanted to be a coach and I kind of stayed upstairs a lot with those guys. I’ve known Doc a long time — almost half my life.”

The WKU offense finally came alive against Charlotte. The Hilltoppers’ 30 points were a season-high, and some of the big plays Helton has been advertising finally connected.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said he hopes last week’s stellar performance will give each individual on offense a confidence boost going forward, especially since it was the second straight game that WKU didn’t turn the ball over once.

“I hope it gives them confidence both in what we do and how they can go out and perform,” Ellis said. “I think we’ve got a group of really, really good football players. We’re coming along. We’re coming together. At the end of the day, it’s about executing and getting the job done.

“Doing it in practice, doing it when there’s nobody around is one thing, but actually doing it on Saturday nights when everybody’s watching, that’s where we get to be special and that’s what I hope as we move forward in these last five games we can get done.”

Redshirt junior wide receiver Jahcour Pearson said he was happy to get points on the board last week, but he felt there were still more improvements to be made.

“It was good to get 30 points on the board,” Pearson said. “Coach Helton was harping on that a lot, but we still left a lot more points on the board and we’re going to get that cleaned up.”

Defensively, WKU has continued to get the job done. The Hilltopper haven’t allowed a point in the fourth quarter against any C-USA opponent thus far, and the WKU defense completely blanked the high-flying Charlotte offense in the second half last weekend.

White said the key to the unit’s success are the adjustments made on the fly in the games.

“We’re trying to make sure we adjust as coaches and move on to the next drive and the next play,” White said. “Make sure our guys understand what we’re going to do, what’s going to happen and go from there.”

Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Juwuan Jones called this game the toughest of the season so far, but believes he believes WKU’s execution will be the deciding factor.

“They’re our toughest test this season,” Jones said. “They’re a very good team. They’re very sound on offense. We’re very sound as well. I think our execution will help us be victorious at the end of the day. I believe in us.”

Helton said even with all of the outside noise present around this game, he’s confident that his squad will remain focused.

“I think the guys understand the routine,” Helton said. “You know, they’ve been in some hostile environments. They go down to FIU, get a big win there and you go to Old Dominion and get a win, so I feel good about they’ll respond the correct way up at Marshall. We just got to be ready to get after it. Marshall will be ready to play and we got to match their execution.”

The Hilltoppers will face the Thundering Herd in Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

The rivalry game will be streamed on Facebook Live.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at [email protected] Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.