The 2019 season has nearly reached its halfway point, and the WKU football team is a sparkling 3-0 in Conference USA play.
The Hilltoppers’ start is a far cry from their 2018 campaign, which saw WKU fail to pick up its first win over a C-USA opponent until Senior Night on Nov. 17.
With five C-USA games left to play, first-year head coach Tyson Helton’s squad has sole possession of first place in the C-USA East Division, a feat the Hilltoppers have accomplished by playing suffocating defense and avoiding mistakes offensively.
WKU (3-2, 3-0 C-USA) kept its scorching start to league action going on Saturday night, as the Hilltoppers descended upon S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Virginia, and held Old Dominion (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) to just 160 yards of total offense in a dominant 20-3 road win.
The Hilltoppers have given up a combined 30 points in three victories over Florida International (2-3, 0-2 C-USA), Alabama-Birmingham (4-1, 1-1 C-USA) and ODU, while the WKU offense has scored exactly 20 points against each of those three C-USA opponents.
While the WKU offense has struggled to get over the 20-point mark, the Hilltopper defense has risen to a completely different level in conference play.
The three points WKU allowed against ODU are the fewest since Oct. 29, 2016, when WKU blasted Florida Atlantic 52-3. The Hilltoppers haven’t given up a point in the final quarter since the season opener against Central Arkansas, and the 160 yards of offense given up on Saturday night was the fifth fewest WKU has allowed since 2007.
Junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone continued his breakout season against the Monarchs, tallying three sacks, four tackles for loss and nine total tackles.
A force to be reckoned with may be an understatement to describe Malone’s early season play, as Malone has registered 46 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks in five games.
Helton had high praise for the defense and its coaching staff, saying the unit is coached up well and is playing with a ton of confidence at the moment.
“First off they’re well-coached, the defensive staff does a great job,” Helton said in a postgame press release. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence and they believe in each other, they believe in this team. I’ve been on a lot of football teams, but never one this close, that believes they can go out there and accomplish a lot of things. Very, very proud to be their head football coach.”
Redshirt senior nickelback Ta’Corian Darden, who picked off a pass against ODU, said a key to the Hilltoppers’ defensive success has been the unit consistently being on the same page.
“There’s been great leadership and everybody on our defense knows that they have to do their job,” Darden said in a postgame press release. “We have a motto; whatever it takes. Do whatever it takes to get the win. That’s what every single position is doing and we’re coming together as a team and making plays and just having fun out there.”
The WKU defense continued flexing its muscles against ODU, but the Hilltopper offense also started to show steady improvement that could lead to a breakout performance soon.
After two weeks of an abysmal rushing attack, the WKU ground game came back to life against the Monarchs. Redshirt junior running back Gaej Walker returned to form, posting 114 yards on 25 attempts and finding the end zone once for the Hilltoppers.
Walker’s performance was a major improvement over his previous two games, where the former defensive back averaged only 30 rushing yards per contest against Louisville and UAB.
Helton was very pleased with his squad’s execution of the game plan against ODU.
“It was very good balance tonight,” Helton said in a postgame press release. “I thought we controlled the ball well, I thought the offensive line did a great job in the run game and Gaej [Walker] ran hard against a really good defense. I thought we had control of the drives for the most part, we allowed our guys to be in good positions [to be successful].”
The Hilltoppers might have also discovered their next go-to weapon in the red zone — freshman tight end Joshua Simon, who scored again on Saturday.
Simon, who came into fall camp listed as an offensive lineman, has four touchdowns in five games played this season for WKU.
Simon said having a perfect conference thus far is nice, but there’s more work left to be done.
“It feels pretty good knowing we’re 3-0. We had a lot of outside doubt coming into this season,” Simon said in a postgame press release. “But, we’ve got to continue to work — it doesn’t end here. In about 48 hours this win won’t mean anything, we’ve got to get ready for the next one.”
Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey said the offense hurt itself early in the game but showed promise throughout the contest.
If the Hilltopper offense can clean up its mistakes, the sky could be the limit, Storey said.
“Knowing you have a defense like we do is definitely a really good feeling,” Storey said in a postgame press release. “We still have to go out there and put up points, but those guys having our back is big time. Like I said, if we keep working and getting this offense rolling — and we’ve shown at times where it is like that — we’ve just got to get more consistent about it.”
Following an undefeated start to conference play, the Hilltoppers will look to extend their winning streak to three games in non-conference action against Army (3-2) on Saturday.
The Black Knights have played two C-USA schools already this season, defeating Rice 14-7 on Aug. 30 and Texas-San Antonio 31-13 on Sept. 14. WKU leads the all-time series over Army 2-0, collecting a 21-17 road win in 2013 and a 52-24 home win in 2014.
Kickoff between WKU and Army in Houchens-Smith Stadium is set for 6 p.m. The game will be available for streaming on Stadium.
Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at [email protected] Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.