Hilltoppers prepare for critical showdown at MTSU

Redshirt junior quarterback Mike White (14) makes a pass during WKU’s 45-7 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Smith Stadium. White passed for 316 yards and 4 touchdowns. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

The rivalry that exists between Middle Tennessee State University and WKU is widely known as “100 Miles of Hate,” but the Hilltoppers are just calling it “the next game” in preparation for Saturday’s matchup in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

“It’s the big one because it’s the next one,” redshirt senior left tackle Forrest Lamp said. “Our backs are up against the wall a little bit, but it’s the same as last year because everybody was gunning for us. Yes, we have to win this one, but it’s just another game.”

After suffering an uncharacteristic setback last Thursday against Louisiana Tech, WKU is in need of a conference win to keep its conference championship dreams above water.

And while Head Coach Jeff Brohm preaches the concept of a one-game season to his team, he understands the increased magnitude of this conference road game.

“We take every game like it’s the Super Bowl and like it’s the most important game of our life,” Brohm said. “It’s a huge game for us. It’s the team leading our conference, and we lost to them at their place two years ago. It’s a pivotal game and pretty much all of them are. We treat it as a one-game season.”

The rivalry, which was renewed in 2014 after WKU joined Conference USA, has yielded some exciting games both times the two teams last met.

The last time the Toppers travelled to Murfreesboro, MTSU escaped with a 50-47 triple-overtime victory in the conference opener for both teams.

“That was a crazy game right there,” senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor said. “That’s kind of one of the things coach Brohm brought up this week: we’re going away with another road test for us and it’s going to be fired up.”

A season ago, Taylor played a big part in a beat down of the Blue Raiders in Bowling Green, racking up 120 yards on six catches for three touchdowns in a 58-28 victory.

Now, with WKU (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) in fourth place in the C-USA East Division standings, Saturday’s contest can determine a lot for both teams. MTSU (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) currently sits atop the division with a one-game lead over the rest, and a high-powered offense to go along with it.

MTSU features an experienced backfield with redshirt sophomore and two-year starter Brent Stockstill at quarterback along with redshirt senior running back I’tavius Mathers.

Mathers, an Ole Miss transfer, has carried the load for the Blue Raiders thus far, scoring eight of the last 11 touchdowns for MTSU and 10 total on the season.

It all starts with Stockstill, however, who is averaging 331 yards through the air and is also third on the team in rushing.

“He’s extremely smart,” Brohm said. “He knows the offense, he’s athletic, he can run around and add time for the receivers to get open and he can run the football. He’s not going to do anything to hurt their team. He’s going to be hard to rattle.”

Mobile quarterbacks like Stockstill have given the Toppers trouble in the past, with the most recent instance being Ryan Higgins of Louisiana Tech on Thursday. Higgins shredded the Tops for 485 total yards and five touchdowns.

“When we get into conference play, it’s going to be a lot of spread teams,” Brohm said. “Unfortunately, [Louisiana Tech] was the first really good team that ran the spread and we got exposed. I think we’ll have a much better plan and we’ll be much more aggressive.”

On paper, the teams are very comparable. WKU’s 36.5 points per game trail MTSU’s 37.6 marginally and both teams allow almost the same amount of points (MTSU 23, WKU 23.5).

Both teams have starting quarterbacks with more than 1,500 passing yards, running backs with 400 yards or more on the ground and 500-yard wide receivers.

The difference in the game will be hard to pinpoint if both teams play complete games, which is something Brohm has been striving for since the end of last season.

“It’s always hard to have a complete, perfect game … I went back and watched a lot of our games last year and we did a lot of good things,” Brohm said. “In some of those games we had a big lead, but I think that our defense has plenty enough personnel and plenty enough ammunition to remedy the problem. We have to find a way to get some turnovers and we have to make sure the quarterback is uncomfortable.”

As the defense tries to get back on track after allowing 55 points in its last outing, starting redshirt junior quarterback Mike White and the offense will look to continue doing their part after scoring 132 points over the past three games.

“One thing I think we’ve been able to do these past three games is score on the first drive,” White said. “Putting points on the board gives our defense a good cushion to play comfortable and play fast like we know they can.”

WKU was able to score on eight of its first 10 offensive possessions in last year’s rout of the Blue Raiders, scoring once on a 69-yard double pass from junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant to Taylor.

Brohm hinted at opening up the playbook again Saturday after having such success with creative plays last season.

“Even looking back at our game against Middle Tennessee last year, on offense specifically, we ran a few different wrinkles early on, and every one of them worked,” Brohm said. “Sometimes when you can give a few different looks that a team hasn’t prepared for, you’ve got a chance.”

Brohm also mentioned trying to get some of the younger receivers involved as the season progresses. Receivers like redshirt freshman Lucky Jackson and redshirt junior kick return specialist Kylen Towner could very well be a part of some of Brohm’s “wrinkles” early on.

“I just go in everyday and try to preach to the young guys, give them some motivation and confidence and let them know to just go out there and play their game,” Taylor said. “I tell them to just go out there, don’t think too much and relax because once you find your groove it’ll all come to you.”

The offense should also benefit from having one of its most important pieces back and healthy: Lamp. Lamp returned to action against Louisiana Tech Thursday after missing the first and only two games of his career with a lower leg injury.

“It felt really good,” Lamp said of his return. “Obviously those two games were the only two I’ve missed in my career and sitting out –– the Vandy game especially –– really hurt me seeing those guys out there without me.”

With Lamp back and everyone else on the offense healthy, White and company can focus solely on the game plan. Even though he’s never played in the rivalry, White is ready for any challenge with so much at stake.

“This is Middle [MTSU] week,” White said. “There’s a lot on the line and that’s why you come to college to play football and games like this. I think the more pressure, the more fun it is.”

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