WKU looks to keep winning streak versus FIU

Redshirt junior quarterback, Mike White (14), hands the ball to redshirt senior running back, Anthony Wales (20), during WKU’s 44-43 double overtime win over MTSU on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Just four weeks removed from sitting in the middle of the Conference USA East Division race with a 1-1 conference record, the WKU football team (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) is now in complete control of its future.

“Like last year, we have control, and everything is on us,” senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris said. “If we keep winning, we keep moving on. If we take a step back, somebody might overpass. It’s a great feeling knowing that you have to be on your cues every week. You have a target on your back and somebody’s trying to get you.”

The Hilltoppers were coming off a 52-55 road loss to Louisiana Tech leaving their season goal of winning a second consecutive conference championship up in the air. Since then, WKU has reeled off three straight conference victories.

“I think we’ve always had a good attitude around here,” quarterbacks coach Brian Brohm said. “We’ve always been grinding and working hard to win football games. I do think that that loss [at La. Tech] stung a little bit. These guys like winning, and they hate losing. We were able to pull a close one out against Middle, and I think that really showed our character, and we just want to keep it going.”

Now, three conference opponents with a combined record of 9-16 are the only obstacles in the way of a WKU squad determined to get back to the conference title game. The Florida International University Golden Panthers (3-6, 3-2 C-USA) also led the division just two weeks ago.

FIU fired Head Coach Ron Turner after starting the season 0-4, and promoted defensive coordinator Ron Cooper to be the interim head coach.

Since then, FIU won three conference games before dropping two straight to the high-powered offenses of Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State University.

“Ever since the coaching change, you can see that they’ve adjusted,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “They’re being much more aggressive on the defensive side of the ball and much more aggressive on offense. Their guys are playing loose, and they’re playing hard. Two weeks ago they were leading the conference at 3-0 in the division, and they played two tough teams.”

The Panthers’ loss to MTSU came down to the final two minutes as FIU quarterback Alex McGough’s pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by MTSU to put the game away by a final score of 42-35.

Despite the loss, the Panthers totaled a season-high 517 yards of offense and dominated the time of possession with a 20-minute advantage over MTSU.

Coming into Saturday’s matchup with WKU, FIU ranks second in the conference and 38th in the nation in time of possession, averaging 31:42 per game.

“We want to score every time we get the ball,” Brian Brohm said. “But they have a defense that is very multiple with a lot of different fronts and different coverages. They’ll try to confuse your center on the o-line calls, and they’ll try to confuse your quarterback a little bit. We want to take advantage of every opportunity we have, and we know that they might try to hold the ball a little bit and keep it away from us.”

A big part of the FIU defensive production comes from junior linebackers Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams who have combined for 175 total tackles this season.

Wint and Williams rank 18th and 21st nationally in tackles per game with both recording just under 10 tackles per contest.

“We don’t overlook or underlook anybody,” Norris said. “We’re just going to come out and play our game. I feel like that if they’re the top 25 [tacklers], we have two of the top 25 receivers so they bring their game and we’re going to bring ours.”

Norris, who now ranks second in WKU history with 172 career catches, is a big reason as to why the Topper offense ranks fourth in the nation in total yards gained and averages over 500 yards of offense per game.

He has been a favorite target for redshirt junior quarterback Mike White who is fifth in the nation in passing yards and is coming off his fourth consecutive 300-yard passing game for an offense that is peaking at just the right time.

“It’s very important,” Norris said. “As you see we’re trying to make a championship run like we did last year even with having an extra loss in that column. It makes us want to go extra hard, so it’s important to everybody that it’s clicking and everybody is producing.”

Norris needs just 138 more yards to join senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor as the first tandem of WKU receivers to eclipse 1,000 yards in the same season.

“We feel like every drive we touch the field, we should score,” Norris said. “We should give our defense a little confidence knowing that they go on the field and it’s 7-0 instead of 3-0 or 0-0.”

Kickoff for the Toppers’ home matchup with FIU is set for 4:30 p.m.

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.