WKU and EKU set to renew “Battle of Bluegrass”

Sam Porter

For the first time since WKU transitioned to the FBS level, the “Battle of the Bluegrass” rivalry between Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky will be renewed when the two teams open the 2017 season Saturday night at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The two teams are coming off quite different seasons. The Hilltoppers are coming off an 11-3 season that included a C-USA championship and a Boca Raton Bowl win. The Colonels are coming off a 3-8 season boggled with injuries at the quarterback position during head coach Mark Elder’s first season in Richmond.

“This is a team we’re facing where there is some significant rivalry moments in the history of this game,” head coach Mike Sanford said earlier this week. “We have an opportunity against an opponent with great tradition to get out there and establish how we want to play football.”

Last season, EKU started four different quarterbacks with their leading rusher Ethan Thomas returning after running for a modest 385 yards in 2016. However, the WKU defense is expected to face a much stronger personnel on Saturday. University of Connecticut transfer Tim Boyle takes over the reigns at quarterback for EKU after sitting out last season. Boyle started eight games for the Huskies over a three-year span and will finally get the chance to be “the guy” and give EKU stability at the quarterback position.

Joining Boyle in the backfield is running back L.J. Scott who will be eligible immediately after transferring from the University of Louisville, giving the Colonels FBS experience on an FCS roster.

“When you’re facing an FCS school, a lot of times you’re looking to play a bunch of new players and transfers because of the transfer rules being what they are,” Sanford continued. “Its a pretty established group from last year to this year. This is a team where we have to prepare for some new players including a new quarterback that is a UCONN transfer. It’ll be a terrific test against a big able-bodied quarterback.”

For WKU’s offense, the biggest challenge will be keeping EKU defensive end Aaron Patrick out of the backfield. Patrick was the lone EKU defensive player last season to earn first team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors after leading the team with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Patrick will be going against an offensive line that lost three starters including former Hilltopper Forrest Lamp. Redshirt senior left tackle Jimmie Sims will likely get the challenge of keeping Patrick from causing problems for senior quarterback Mike White and company.

“I think one thing that has been steady throughout fall camp has been the offensive line,” White said. “Since day one, they came out with a chip on their shoulder. We did lose some great lineman in Lamp and Max [Halpin] but we got some good ones coming back. They did a good job of taking camp seriously and proving to themselves that they’re still an offensive line thats pretty damn good.”

WKU will be without sophomore running back Quinton Baker, redshirt freshman wide receiver Xavier Lane, and redshirt freshman Tyler Obee after being suspended for the opener after their roles in a fight at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house this past Spring. Redshirt junior D’Andre Ferby (ankle) is questionable but is expected to start in the backfield for the Hilltoppers on Saturday.

The Hilltoppers and Colonels will kick off at 7 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium in the first regular season game of the Mike Sanford era.

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