Hilltoppers look for continued rushing improvement in Week 2

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers running back Garland LaFrance (14) rushes the ball 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

A major focus for WKU going into Week 1 was improvement in the running game, and that will still be a key as the Hilltoppers take on Maine in Week 2.

Going up against a stout Wisconsin defense on Friday, WKU was able to come up with 124 yards rushing. But the individual numbers show that the two leading rushers for the team were the quarterbacks: redshirt senior Drew Eckels with 34 yards and redshirt freshman Davis Shanley, who finished with 31.

WKU played five running backs (Gino Appleberry, Garland LaFrance, D’Andre Ferby, Joshua Samuel and Marquez Trigg) in the losing effort. Appleberry, a true freshman, led the way among them with 27 yards.


This week the Hilltoppers will face a different challenge. They’re not taking on the Badgers team that was ranked fourth in the nation in total defense last year, but they are up against a Maine defense that only allowed 116 total yards last week against New Hampshire. UNH was ranked the No. 7 team in the Football Championship Subdivision. 

Head coach Mike Sanford said he was pleased with the effort of his running backs and trusted them to improve moving forward.

“The fact that we were able to rush the ball over 120 yards against a defensive front that hadn’t given up 100 yards rushing against a non-conference opponent since 2013 are all positive signs,” Sanford said.

Working alongside multiple running backs works for Appleberry, who had high praise for his fellow running backs after Tuesday’s practice.

“They’re pretty much dogs,” Appleberry said. “I look up to three of them and there’s another freshman, he’s just going with the flow, working hard. He’s getting most of the reps, so he’s working hard. We all just bonded together and there’s no hate between none of us.”

The most senior member of the running back group, D’Andre Ferby, said he too had no issues with splitting time and every member of the corps brought something different to the table.

“In today’s game you have to have more than one running back,” Ferby said. “Growing up all I saw was the old-school one running back the whole game, but the game is just evolutionizing to, you know, you’ve got to have different running backs for different schemes.”

Ferby had three carries for 11 yards on Friday. He’s formerly a member of the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.

Ferby also praised his fellow running backs, specifically singling out the freshmen in the group.

“They’re ready,” Ferby said. “I’m high on Josh Samuel; he had a great spring. He’s pushed me. Competition brings out the best in everybody, so I see him over my shoulder.”

The running backs will be aided by an offensive line that looked improved in Week 1 compared to last season. Sanford spoke about how pleased he was with the group and pointed out a few players in particular.

“Miles Pate was great,” Sanford said. “His move to tackle was a great move by TJ Woods. It made us very good at the point of attack, very physical. The double teams that I saw from he and Jordan Meredith were very good.”

Sanford also praised this week’s opponent, the University of Maine defense, saying he thought they did a good job against UNH, the Black Bears’ opponent last week.

“What I did see is a Maine team that blitzes a lot,” Sanford said. “They blitz combination pressure over 50 percent of the snaps on first and second down. That’s a different challenge than what Wisconsin brought.”

WKU and Maine will kick off at 6:30 p.m. in Houchens-Smith Stadium. Cage the Elephant is playing a show prior to the game on South Lawn starting at 4:30 p.m.

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