Hilltoppers travel to rival Marshall with bowl implications on the line

Sam Porter

Three years ago, Western Kentucky (6-5 at the time) traveled to 24th ranked Marshall (11-0) in the regular season finale. Things got chippy early as officials got in between the two teams during warmups.

Ultimately, former WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty hit tight end Willie McNeal for a 2-point conversion in overtime to give WKU a 67-66 victory, ending the Thundering Herd’s perfect season and thus igniting a rivalry between the two schools.

The two teams have met twice since, and the Hilltoppers have won both meetings by an average of 37.5 points. Although the short-lived rivalry has been one-sided, it doesn’t have a one-sided feeling for the players who have been apart of the rivalry since that memorable upset back in 2014.

“This is my fourth year here and every game is always high energy,” redshirt junior running back D’Andre Ferby said. “The fans get more of a kick out of it than we do sometimes, but I’m expecting nothing but the best from those guys. Especially down in that atmosphere, it’s always crazy.”

The Hilltoppers (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) return to Huntington for the second straight year on Saturday and will look to duplicate their 60-6 massacre of the Thundering Herd on Marshall’s senior night a year ago.

However, this year’s contest looks to be more evenly matched. Marshall quarterback Chase Litten already has the Thundering Herd (6-3, 3-2 C-USA) bowl eligible in his third year under center. Litten is tied for the C-USA lead in touchdown passes (18) but has also thrown nine interceptions in nine games. However, six of those interceptions have come in the past two games alone, both of which were losses.

Litten will look to bounce back against a WKU defense that ranks first in C-USA against the pass (186.4 YPG) and allowed just seven touchdowns through the air.

“They have a quarterback who’s very capable,” head coach Mike Sanford said of Litten. “The deal for him is if he doesn’t turn the ball over, he has been outstanding. The past two weeks, seven turnovers between the FAU and FIU games. We dealt with the same issue vs. FAU. They create turnovers in bunches and that obviously was the difference in the game.”

The WKU offense has averaged 58.6 points per game in the past three wins against Marshall, but don’t expect the Hilltoppers to score anywhere near that margin this time around.

The Thundering Herd defense ranks first in C-USA in points per game allowed (19) including just 17.4 in C-USA contests. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White, who leads C-USA in passing yards, will look to outduel Litten on the road against arguably the best defense in the conference.

White left last Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt late in the game after taking multiple hits but is expected to start on Saturday.

“Statistically, they’ve been one of the best defenses in Conference USA, if not the best in certain categories,” Sanford continued. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. They’re at a place right now where they’re coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re coming off a two-game losing streak. It will be two really hungry teams in a rivalry game who are looking to find a way to win a football game.”

Although their goal of winning the C-USA championship is nearly out the door, the Hilltoppers are still playing for win number six to become bowl eligible. It won’t be easy, as WKU opens up as a 13-point underdog against the Thundering Herd. The Hilltoppers host Middle Tennessee (4-5), a team that will likely be battling for bowl eligibility, on Nov. 17 before traveling to Florida International (6-2) to conclude the regular season.

“That’s the main thing, just knowing that we still have something to play for,” Ferby continued. “We’ve still got something to play for, which is a bowl game and also our pride.”

WKU and Marshall kick off at 5:30 p.m. at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, West Virginia. The game can be streamed on BeINSports.com.

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.