WKU focused on avoiding Homecoming slip-up against struggling Charlotte

WKU wide receiver Jacquez Sloan (2), runs right side of the field at WKU Homecoming football game on Saturday Oct. 14, 2017 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Alec Jessie

Coming off a major statement win against Army last weekend, the WKU football team (4-2, 3-0 C-USA) will look to extend its winning streak to four straight games against Charlotte (2-4, 0-2 C-USA) in the annual Homecoming game in Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday night.

WKU will be looking for its first four-game winning streak since Sept. 23 to Oct. 20, 2017 against the 49ers. The Hilltoppers have achieved a four-game winning streak in every season since 2011 except 2018.

The Hilltoppers dominated Army on both sides of the ball a week ago, with the defense pitching a shutout for most of the game. The Black Knights finally reached the end zone in the fourth quarter, but Army still couldn’t avoid defeat and fell 17-8 to WKU.

The 49ers are coming off back-to-back Conference USA losses against Florida Atlantic (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) and Florida International (3-3, 1-2). Charlotte gave up a combined 93 points in those defeats, losing 45-27 to FAU and 48-23 to FIU.

Although the 49er defense has proven to be shaky, head coach Tyson Helton said he’s still prepared for a unique challenge this week.

“Each game takes on its own dynamic,” Helton said. “What we’ve done really well as a staff is to get into the game and make the adjustments we need to make. I always look at our defense, see how they’re playing, how do they matchup up with the opponent and it helps me determine what we need to do offensively.

“At the end of the day, don’t do the things that beat you. Turn the ball over, unnecessary penalties. I do feel like in this game though, we’re facing a really good offense. So our offense has to be prepared to say, ‘Hey, let’s try to get 30-plus points on the board. We need to get it done offensively.”

Last season’s trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, didn’t go well for WKU. The 49ers dominated the Hilltoppers from kickoff to the final whistle, winning 40-14 and handing WKU its fifth loss on the season on Oct. 13, 2018.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis made it clear the WKU offense shouldn’t be content with its recent play and the unit will be focused on avoiding any type of complacency

“Offensively, I hope our kids don’t think we’re anywhere close to where we want to be,” Ellis said. “I hope our guys realize we’re kind of piggy-backing off of the defense right now. We got a long way to go on our side of the ball, that’s for sure. Based off of what’s coming out of my mouth to the offense, I don’t think they’re going to have any problem understanding that we got a long way to go.” 

Consistency has been the name of the game for the WKU offense — the unit has scored 20 points on the dot in each conference game.

Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey said the coaches are preaching toughness and perseverance ahead of WKU’s latest challenge. 

“It’s continue to grind and focus and push like we haven’t pushed before,” Storey said. “ We got to keep this going. It’s a big conference game. We got to really come and play our game.”

It’s no secret that the defense has been the star unit for WKU so far. The Hilltoppers have allowed just 30 points to C-USA opponents this season, good for a mere 10 points per game.

But Charlotte running back Benny LeMay was placed on the 2019 watch list for the Doak Walker Award — given annually to the nation’s top running back — and has posted four 100-yard rushing performances by this season, tying him with WKU running back Gaej Walker for first place in C-USA.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White said the key to his defense’s consistent dominance has been a focus on itself rather than other squads.

“We just try to do the same thing every week as far as keeping the focus on us,” White said. “We’re really not concerned about any other team in this league. We’re more concerned about us. The team that happens to be on our schedule is the team that we’re really concerned about. Keeping the focus on team defensive football and team football to try to win as many games as we can possibly win.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Malik Staples, a transfer from Louisville, is thrilled with the progression of the WKU defense, but he’s focused on the future rather than the past.

“This is amazing,” Staples said. “From the film that I watched last year, coming out this year and seeing the things we’re doing, I feel like we’re on a whole other level. We’re going to keep going and focusing on what we have next and go out there and ball.”

Despite the records and numbers, Helton said he’s expecting a dog fight that will come down to the wire on Saturday afternoon.

“I think it will be a very challenging game,” Helton said. “I expect them to give us their best shot. I think they’ll come in and be ready to play. I expect this game to go down to the last minute of the game, to be quite honest with you. They’re a well-coached football team, they’re a talented football team and they score a lot of points. We’re going to have to play great defense and score a bunch of points on offense.”

Kickoff in Houchens-Smith Stadium is set for 3 p.m. 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.