WKU focused on securing 2-0 start in conference play against UAB

WKU quarterbacks Ty Storey (4), Davis Shanley (12) and Kevaris Thomas (8) during the Red vs White spring game on April 13, 2019.

Alec Jessie

The WKU football team made it through the first of its two scheduled bye weeks this season, and now the Hilltoppers (1-2, 1-0 C-USA) are slated for a tough test against reigning Conference USA champion Alabama-Birmingham (3-0, 0-0 C-USA) in Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday night.

WKU is looking to rebound from a 38-21 loss to Louisville (2-2, 0-1 ACC) in Nashville on Sept. 14. The Blazers are coming off of a 35-3 blowout win against South Alabama (1-3) last Saturday. UAB’s meeting with WKU will be the team’s first C-USA tilt this season.

With a key conference game looming large, WKU still doesn’t have its new starting quarterback. Head coach Tyson Helton announced during his weekly presser on Monday that redshirt junior quarterback Steven Duncan will miss the rest of 2019 after undergoing season-ending surgery to put pins in his injured left foot last week.

Helton has yet to name his long-term solution at quarterback, but the first-year head coach said the WKU coaching staff was productive during the bye week and got a head start on its preparation for UAB.

“I thought we got a lot done during the bye week,” Helton said. “Really was able to evaluate the quarterbacks, which needed to be done. I thought they did a good job through the bye week. Was able to get a jumpstart on UAB, which we really needed. Defensively, we were able to evaluate some things.”

The Blazers come to the Hill boasting an impressive defense —the Blazer defense has given up only 14 points per game this season are allowing just 281 yards per contest.

Helton singled out UAB’s defensive front as an area that could give WKU trouble.

“I think their front four really controls the line of scrimmage well,” Helton said. “I think their D-line does a great job in the run game, does good on the pass rush. We’ll have to do a great job with our offensive line and be sound in pass protection and the run game. All games are usually won in the trenches in some form or fashion.”

Redshirt junior offensive lineman Tyler Witt said the Blazers have a lot of talent on their defensive line, but the WKU offense is making plans to “put out a good game” on film and “be able to drive the ball down the field” using their physical play.

“They play really hard,” Witt said about UAB. “You know, you can see it on the tape that they’re not quitting on many plays and they’re physical as well. It’s going to be who out-physicals who and who brings their lunch pail to the ballpark.”

Even with an impending change at quarterback, offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said the WKU offense will not shy away from the tough Blazer defense.

“I can promise you this, we’re not going to play scared,” Ellis said. “We’re going to do what we feel we need to do to go win the football game. We’re going to have to make plays in the run game and the passing game. We are playing our backup quarterback, but we’re not playing scared.”

On defense, the Hilltoppers will be tasked with stopping a well-rounded UAB offensive attack. The Blazers average 30 points per game to go along with 248.7 passing yards and 153.3 rushing yards per contest.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White had high praise for the UAB offense, citing its versatility.

“They do a great job over there with the offensive scheme,” White said. “The players buy into the system. The quarterback is the leader of the offense. Really good overall team and very balanced. They understand their system.”

Redshirt junior defensive lineman Jeremy Darvin said a win over the defending C-USA championship squad on Saturday could be a major statement to the rest of the league.

“That’s big,” Darvin said. “That would be a real be tone-setter for this team. Especially with them being the conference champions from last year. That’ll be a big eye-opener for the conference.”

WKU will look to maintain its unblemished record in conference play against the Blazers, a squad the Hilltoppers haven’t met in a matchup on the gridiron since Oct. 4, 2014. On that date, UAB traveled to Bowling Green and defeated WKU 42-39.

Kickoff for the Parent & Family Weekend game is set for 6 p.m. in Houchens-Smith Stadium. 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.