Hilltoppers look to even their record heading before the bye week

Defensive backs Joe Brown (7), Marcus Ward (40) and Ta’Corian Darden (15) look on as La Tech gets ready to kick the eventual game-winning field goal last Saturday.

Sam Porter


Before the season started, Ball State was not dubbed as a critical game on WKU’s schedule. But after defeating Eastern Kentucky 31-17 in Week 1, the Hilltoppers have dropped two straight games and head coach Mike Sanford has yet to defeat an FBS opponent.

Ball State enters Saturday’s matchup at 2-1, with the lone loss being a three-point road loss to Illinois, a team WKU lost to by 13 the very next week. The Cardinals are coached by Mike Neu who enters his second year at the helm after a 4-8 debut season.

Former WKU head coach David Elson, who coached the Hilltoppers from 2003-2009, is the defensive coordinator. Elson led WKU to the FCS playoffs twice but was fired after the infamous 0-12 season in 2009. The Hilltoppers will look to get back to .500 before the bye week and Conference USA play gets into full swing.

“Every week is a big week. We go week by week, day by day and game by game,” redshirt sophomore defensive back Ta’Corian Darden said on Monday. “Of course, after two losses, we don’t like the feeling of losing. We’ve just got to do whatever we’ve got to do so we don’t feel that again.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White has already been sacked 10 times in 2017, and the task of keeping him upright won’t get any easier on Saturday. Ball State defensive end Anthony Winbush leads the nation with six total sacks through three games. Last season, Winbush earned Third Team All-Mid-American Conference honors after recording a team high of 8.5 sacks, but it appears his game has already risen to another level in 2017. Redshirt senior left tackle Jimmie Sims will likely get the task of keeping the nation’s sack leader off White’s back and out of the WKU backfield.

“He’s a very good technician and he plays every snap like his hair is on fire,” Sanford said about Winbush. “He’s a guy that you have to know where he’s at all times. I respect the way he plays. He’s not 6-6 260 lbs. He’s listed at 6-1, 240 lbs, but he plays with tremendous technique and effort and is very physically gifted.”

While WKU will worry about stopping Winbush, Ball State won’t have to worry about WKU’s biggest threat on the defensive line for the first half. Senior defensive end Derik Overstreet will sit out the first half after being penalized with a targeting penalty late in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Louisiana Tech.

On the offensive side of the ball, Ball State wide receiver Justin Hall will look to exploit a WKU secondary that has already given up 300 yards through the air twice this season. Although just a true freshman, Hall leads the Cardinals with 17 catches for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Redshirt senior defensive back Joe Brown will look to shut down the freshman on Saturday.

The Hilltoppers’ No. 1 cornerback is fourth on the team in tackles (14) and has recorded a sack as well. Last week against LA Tech, quarterback J’mar Smith saw one-on-one coverage with his receiver against Brown. Smith took a shot deep, and Brown picked off the pass with 3:31 left, giving the ball back to WKU with a chance to run out the clock and seal a win.

“His ability to diagnose what the offenses are doing to attack defensive coverages is second to none,” Sanford said about Brown. “That comes back to the experience in having played so much. The other thing I really appreciate about Joe is he’s done a really nice job of challenging receivers to not just give them the easy 5-yard hitch. He’ll come out and challenge you, then all of a sudden he’ll play top-down whenever they want to take a shot over him. That’s what happened on his interception.”

The Hilltoppers and Cardinals kick off at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

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