Hilltoppers looks to solve run game issues against Old Dominion

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers running back Joshua Samuel (25) is handed the ball in the first quarter during the NCAA football game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on August 31. CHRIS KOHLEY/HERALD

Matt Stahl

WKU football is still looking for its first Conference USA win this season after a 40-14 loss to Charlotte last week, and the Hilltoppers will get their next chance this Saturday when Old Dominion comes to town. 

ODU comes into the game with a 1-6 record, but the Monarchs’ only win was a stunning upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech.

Besides settling on a starting quarterback, which will be an even tougher decision with redshirt senior Drew Eckels being active in practice, one of the keys to victory will be finding the ability to run the ball. Redshirt freshman running back Joshua Samuel, the team’s leading rushier, is currently averaging 4.8 yards per carry. But he only got six carries against Charlotte.

“I would say we haven’t performed up to par,” running backs coach Mike Sanford Sr. said. “We’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to run harder, we’ve got to make people miss.”

Besides Samuel, the other Hilltopper running backs have also shown solid production when given the opportunity. Freshman Garland LaFrance has rushed for an average of 4.9 yards on 16 attempts and redshirt senior D’Andre Ferby, who is recovering from surgery, has an average of 4.6 yards on 22 attempts.

“You’ve got plays that have a run/pass option to them,” Sanford Sr. said. “When you hear the term on TV, ‘RPO,’ and there’s times when we have runs called and we’re throwing it outside and that’s something that we need to, we need to have some where we’re not doing that, we’re just handing the ball off.”

WKU head coach Mike Sanford Jr. said that one of the most important things for Hilltopper running backs is their skill in pass blocking. Sanford pointed to freshman Gino Appleberry as someone who has done well in that department.

“From a pass protection standpoint he was as good as I’ve seen and that’s a true freshman doing that against a team that was blitzing with frequency,” Sanford said. “Against a nickel sam that was a junior/senior type player.

Sanford Sr. said that he fully agreed with his son about Appleberry’s recent play.

“He has been outstanding in that area,” Sanford Sr. said. “He did a really good job in this last game as a pass protector and one of the things that we’re going to end up doing is guys that produce and do things well, we’re going to reward them with more opportunities.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Hilltoppers’ main goal will be to get off the field with more frequency than they did against Charlotte, where the WKU offense was only able to run seven plays during the third quarter.

Senior defensive back Drell Greene mentioned a few other keys to stopping the ODU offensive attack.

“Be more physical,” Greene said. “Play faster than them. I feel like if we play fast and be more physical, we have a good chance at this game.

Greene also spoke of the need to stay in the moment on Saturday.

“To be honest, we can’t look over anybody where we’re at right now,” Greene said. “We’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one play at a time and play the best that we can play.”

Despite that, Greene, who ranks third on the team with 40 tackles, felt confident.

“I feel like we can play with anybody,” Greene said. “With them beating Virginia Tech, I honestly feel like we’re better than them, but we’re gonna show it this Saturday.”

The Hilltoppers and Monarchs kick off at 6:30 p.m. in Houchens-Smith Stadium Saturday. 

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.