Hilltoppers prepare for road contest at FAU

Redshirt junior quarterback Mike White (14) goes for a pass during WKU’s 59-24 win over ODU on Saturday, Oct. 22, in Smith Stadium. White contributed four touchdowns while completing 28 of 32 passes. Brendan O’Hern/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Three weeks ago, the WKU football team was sitting at a record of 3-3 overall with a lot of question marks surrounding the direction of its season.

Now heading into their ninth game of the season, the Hilltoppers (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) are tied for first place in the East division of C-USA and will look to become bowl eligible with a road victory at Florida Atlantic University.

“I think every year is going to be a new team and you’re gonna have to replace certain pieces,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “We had a good schedule early on; we played some tough teams and weren’t able to win a couple close games. But that’s all about growing and becoming better, and I think that you understand your weaknesses early on and where you need to improve.”

After notching consecutive quality conference wins over Middle Tennessee State University and Old Dominion University, the Toppers will travel to Boca Raton a bit shorthanded.

As a result of the sideline-clearing brawl that took place in Saturday’s game against Old Dominion, redshirt senior running back Anthony “Ace” Wales will be suspended for the first half against FAU.

The conference released a statement on the issue earlier this week citing that Wales and Old Dominion safety Christian Bynum will both miss the first half of their team’s games this weekend.

The statement also said that WKU senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris and junior wide receiver Kylen Towner have both been “reprimanded for their roles” in the fight.

“Both teams did the best job that we could at separating things on both sides of the ball,” Jeff Brohm said. “I think the fact that we were able to continue to play the game, nothing else happened, and we shook hands after the game was a positive for all. Those things, we addressed with our team. People cannot leave the sideline. We cannot have those things happen. I think that our team understands that, and you don’t like to see that at all, but I think it’s been addressed.”

Without Wales –– who is coming off a 157-yard, two-touchdown performance against ODU –– the Toppers will rely on freshman running back Quinton Baker and redshirt freshman running back Marquez Trigg to carry the load in the backfield.

“We need those guys to step up,” quarterbacks coach Brian Brohm said. “We’ve asked them multiple times to step up this year, and they’ve answered the bell every time, so now we’re looking forward to giving them some time and seeing what they can do.”

Baker is expected to make his second career start in the WKU backfield. The freshman running back filled in for Wales in week three, accounting for 115 total yards from scrimmage and a touchdown to go with it.

“I’m just approaching it like another week, and I just have to do what [Wales] would do if he was in there,” Baker said. “The first eight games, I’ve learned a lot. It’s the most I’ve learned about football since I’ve been playing, so every day I’m growing and making strides. Hopefully Saturday I can go out and do my thing.”

Not only will the Toppers be without Wales for the first half, but multi-talented junior wide receiver/punt returner Nacarius Fant is also listed as questionable with an ankle injury heading into a matchup with a versatile defense.

“They’re an athletic bunch,” Brian Brohm said of the FAU defense. “When you turn on the film, there’s some guys running around that’ll challenge our receivers and get up and press them and make you complete some passes with some tough one-on-one coverage. They have some good pass rushers and good defensive ends that will get up and pressure the quarterback, so we have to be ready for a very athletic defense and our guys are ready for the challenge.”

The Owls (1-6, 0-3 C-USA) are in the midst of a six-game losing streak, but their record can be a bit misleading. FAU has lost its last four games by a combined 17 points, losing to conference opponents Florida International, Charlotte and Marshall by one score or less.

“They’ve lost a lot of game that went down to the wire which means they’re competitive, and they’ve got good players,” Jeff Brohm said. “They’re very capable of beating anybody. I think there’s a lot of parity in this conference, and I think that our guys need to understand that if they’re not ready to play, without question we’ll get beat.”

It will be a Homecoming affair for a lot of Jeff Brohm’s players as seven of the Hilltoppers’ starters hail from Florida, including the nation’s sixth leading passer and WKU starting quarterback, Mike White.

“It’s always fun when you get to go 35 minutes away from where you grew up, but it’s a big game for us,” White said. “We kind of took this playoff mentality that we gotta win out and reach the goals we set back in the spring.”

With a win on Saturday, the Toppers will reach one of those goals that is set to begin every season: bowl eligibility.

“We expect it of ourselves,” White said. “Our only goal in mind right now is beating FAU. It’s a one game season –– coach [Jeff] Brohm preaches that –– and I think obviously in the back of our mind we want to reach our goals we set when we started, but it’s just one game at a time.”

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