Hilltoppers and Bulldogs face off for first time since C-USA title game

The offensive line prepares for former WKU center Max Halpin (70) to snap the ball during WKU’s game against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 10, 2015, at Houchens- Smith Stadium. 

Sam Porter

WKU and Louisiana Tech are not unfamiliar foes when it comes to playing on the gridiron. The two programs have faced off three times in the past two years, with the average margin of victory being less than seven points in all of those contests. The most recent meeting came last December when the two met for the Conference USA title, a 58-44 Hilltopper victory where two quarterbacks combined for over 900 passing yards. In the previous three meetings, the lowest scoring margin was 38 points by Louisiana Tech in 2015.

“It’s exciting, it’s always high-scoring,” redshirt junior running back D’andre Ferby said about facing LA Tech. “Hopefully it’s not quite as high scoring for them as it is for us. After the championship game last year, we’re expecting the best from them. It’s a rematch and I’m sure they’re hungry to face us again out here.”

However, both offenses have struggled to build off of last year’s success.

Both teams opened the season with wins over FCS opponents. WKU defeated Eastern Kentucky by just 14 while the Bulldogs led Northwestern State by just seven points entering the fourth quarter of their opening win. Both teams had the opportunity to beat a Power 5 school in Week 2, and both fell well short. The Hilltoppers were handed a 20-7 loss to Illinois of the Big Ten while the Bulldogs were not the wrong side of a 57-21 thumping by Mississippi State of the SEC.

“We’re facing a Louisiana Tech team that’s coming into town that also had a tough Week 2 as well,” Sanford said. “Whoever can lick their wounds faster and get back to being ready to play in a humongous conference game, a rematch of the 2016 championship game, is going to be the team that finds a way to win this game.”

One reason the WKU offense struggled last week was its inability to give redshirt senior quarterback Mike White time in the pocket as well as an inability to get the run game going. Sanford mentioned the left tackle position has been opened up.

Redshirt senior Jimmie Sims, who started the first two games, will compete with redshirt sophomore Parker Howell for the starting position this week in practice. Sanford said the starter won’t be announced until gameday.

Ferby has run for just 71 yards and averaged under three yards per carry through two games. Last week against Mississippi State, the Louisiana Tech defense gave up 327 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in the 36-point loss.

“It starts with me,” offensive coordinator Junior Adams said about establishing the run game. “I’ve got to do a better job of sticking with the run game and being patient with it. Our running backs have put in a lot of work this offseason leading up to these past two weeks. But it starts up front with the offensive line. We want to establish our dominance up front in the run game and be physical.”

With the departure of former quarterback Ryan Higgins, the Bulldog offense doesn’t seem quite as explosive as last season. First year starter J’mar Smith has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and is averaging just over 200 passing yards per game, a huge step down from Higgins’ 329 YPG from last year.

Last week, the Hilltoppers played without senior defensive end Derik Overstreet and junior defensive end Carson Jordan. The two are expected to return this week and will look to put pressure on an inexperienced quarterback. Offensively, graduate transfer wide receiver Cameron Echols-Luper did not play last week due to injury and is expected to play on Saturday.

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

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