The Walkthrough: Maine gives Hilltoppers a chance for confidence boost

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

Jeremy Chisenhall

WKU couldn’t have had a much tougher test to start the 2018 season, and 34-3 losses can certainly be deflating.

But the Hilltoppers have a prime opportunity to boost their confidence in their game against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Maine this week.

WKU is one of two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents Maine will play this year. The other is Central Michigan, which Maine will play next week. Maine hasn’t beaten an FBS opponent since 2013 when the Black Bears beat Massachusetts 24-14. The Hilltoppers are given a 74.4 percent chance to beat the Black Bears in ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Maine is coming off a 35-7 win over New Hampshire in Week 1, making the Black Bears 1-0 this year. It was Maine’s run game that really stood out, as the Black Bears recorded 203 rushing yards on the day.

Maine certainly doesn’t present the same rushing challenge that No. 4 Wisconsin did, because the Black Bears don’t have Jonathan Taylor, nor do they have what might be the best offensive line in the country. But Maine does present its rushing attack in a different way, as the Black Bears had great success with a running back committee in Week 1.

Redshirt junior Joe Fitzpatrick led the Maine rushing attack, recording 80 yards and one touchdown. He was followed closely by redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson, who had 74 yards. Redshirt freshman Devin Young and junior Earnest Edwards combined for another 52 yards, and Edwards also tacked on a touchdown.

“They have some tough backs,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “Big, run behind their pads, downhill backs. They’re going to play under center. So it is good that we saw Wisconsin Week 1 because typically you play a team, either in FCS or another Group of 5 team, pretty much everybody runs a version of the spread offense. You know, these guys certainly have spread elements to their offense, but they want to be under center, they want to run fly sweep and they want to pound the ball downhill against you.”

With Maine’s rushing attack having a lot of depth, the Hilltoppers will be presented with a slightly different challenge than what they got against the Badgers, albeit a less dangerous one.

“We have to be very disciplined, we have to tackle very well, they have two really good running backs,” defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “So you’ve got to believe that they’re going to come in trying to run the football.”

The other concern for WKU is to avoid allowing a big quarter. The Hilltoppers trailed UW by just seven points at the end of the first quarter last week but then allowed 17 unanswered in the second quarter to go into the half trailing 24-0.

Maine’s Week 1 game featured a similar occurrence. Maine and New Hampshire were both scoreless in the first quarter, but Maine rattled off 22 unanswered in the second quarter to go into halftime with a 22-0 lead. In order for WKU to come out on top as expected, the Hilltoppers will either need to avoid a chaotic quarter or be the ones in control of it.

As long as WKU can defend the run and avoid disaster, the Hilltoppers will also get a chance to work out the kinks in an offense that struggled last week. Nine Hilltoppers recorded at least one carry against UW, but WKU was still held to 137 rushing yards. Redshirt senior quarterback Drew Eckels was the team’s leading rusher with 38 yards. The Hilltoppers also struggled in the passing game, as Eckels and redshirt freshman Davis Shanley combined for just 181 passing yards.

The Hilltoppers also struggled to maintain possession. All six of the team’s first six drives ended in punts. In the second half, three of WKU’s five drives ended with an interception, a punt or a turnover on downs.

Maine finished the 2017 season 4-6, with five of the six losses being by double digits. Consider this a game that allows WKU the opportunity to get back on track at home before facing another tough test at Louisville.

Sports editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 859-760-0198 and [email protected]