Hilltoppers still in search of bowl eligibility

WKU offensive lineman Darrell Williams Jr. (62) holds on to the Boca Raton trophy after the Hilltoppers’ 51-31 win over Memphis on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016 at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla.

Cameron Brown

The WKU football team has achieved bowl eligibility by October the past couple seasons, rolling to a Conference USA title both years.

But that has not been the case in 2017.

The Hilltoppers (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) all but lost their chance to contend for a third straight conference title after a 42-28 loss to Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic at home on Oct. 28, and they dropped to 5-4 on the year after a 31-17 setback to Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday. But WKU still has the opportunity to make a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year.

“We’re one game away from bowl eligibility; that’s what we have to go out and take care of,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “Whoever the guys are that are going to step up will go through practice this week, and I really believe they’ll do that.”

WKU closes out the regular season with three tough opponents in Marshall, Middle Tennessee and Florida International, needing to notch only one more victory to reach that six-win plateau.

The Hilltoppers will travel to Huntington to face Marshall (6-3, 3-2) on Saturday night, and the WKU offense will have to deal with a stifling Thundering Herd defense. Marshall’s defense ranks in the Top 25 nationally, giving up just 19 points and approximately 329 yards per game.

WKU will then return to Bowling Green for a showdown with rival MTSU (4-5, 2-3) the following Friday night. The Blue Raiders will be seeking revenge this year after the Hilltoppers stole a 44-43 victory in Murfreesboro last October.

A game at Florida International will be the regular season finale for Sanford and the Hilltoppers. The Panthers (6-2, 4-1) have won six out of their last seven games after getting blown out by now 18th-ranked and undefeated Central Florida, 61-17, in the season opener.

The main thing that has plagued WKU thus far is its ground attack. The Hilltoppers have struggled to run the ball all season, and they did not even rush for positive yardage against Vanderbilt on Saturday, accumulating -6 yards on 30 carries.

“We have got to solve that now,” said Sanford after the loss. “We’ve got to find ways to run the football, or it’s going to be tough sledding every game no matter who [we] play.”

The receiving corps has been a rotating cast of players so far this season, which doesn’t make veteran quarterback Mike White’s job any easier to find a rhythm.

White’s main target is senior Nacarius Fant, who has caught a team-high 41 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns. Fant is an explosive playmaker that is good at getting yards after the initial catch, and he will look to do even more on a team that has been hit with injury after injury.

Graduate transfer Cameron Echols-Luper (217 receiving yards) and senior Kylen Towner (173 receiving yards) are still listed as day-to-day with undisclosed injuries, and redshirt senior tight end Deon Yelder is questionable after missing his first game of the year on Saturday.

Yelder has been a bright spot at tight end for the Hilltoppers, as he leads the team in touchdown catches and is second in receptions and receiving yards. WKU may have another solid rising tight end in Mik’quan Deane, as the junior caught five passes for 57 yards in the loss to the Commodores.

The main thing WKU will have to correct if it wants to go bowling is the number of sacks allowed. The Hilltoppers are currently ranked 121st nationally in this statistical category, having allowed 29 sacks for a total loss of 214 yards.

“We just have to make sure we sustain our blocks,” Sanford said. “All five guys on the offensive line sustaining their blocks together, and then our running backs going between the tackles. That’s what we have to do.”

Reporter Cameron Brown can be reached at 270-577-1699 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Cameron_Brown_3.