Timely Hilltopper defensive unit on the mend

Redshirt sophomore defensive back Branden Leston (45) attempts to tackle UTEP senior running back Josh Bell. Mike Clark/HERALD

Kyle Williams

Home is where the heart is, as they say, and for the Hilltoppers, it’s where the wins are.

The Hilltoppers average a staggering 49.75 points per game at home this season, and despite giving up an average of 37.75 points and 485.3 yards per game in four matchups at Smith Stadium, WKU (4-5, 2-4 Conference USA) is 3-1.

In comparison, WKU gives up 44.6 points per game on the road, where they’re 1-4 on the season.

The defense has steadily improved in each week at home, too, as the Hilltoppers have pitched two-straight home fourth-quarter shutouts against Old Dominion and UTEP. In said quarters, WKU limited the Monarchs and Miners to just 66.5 yards on average and a total of just two third- and fourth-down conversions.

Not to mention two WKU defensive backs, Juwan Gardner and Wonderful Terry, each intercepted and scored touchdown returns of 90 yards or more against ODU and UTEP, respectively, changing the momentum of each game.

The Hilltoppers lead the nation with four defensive scores of 80 yards or more, but sophomore safety Marcus Ward said the defensive unit needs to buckle down earlier in order to create a cushion for itself.

“We want to play consistent throughout the whole game,” Ward said. “As our games have come down to the fourth quarter we have stepped up at times, but we want to stop them early to take some pressure off of us for the rest of the game.”

The defense will have an additional non-homefield advantage this weekend as Army and its triple-option, which WKU has become familiar with over the past two seasons, will look to break WKU’s defensive hot streak.

The Hilltoppers used a two-yard game-winning touchdown from former All-American running back Antonio Andrews to secure a 21-17 victory over the Black Knights (3-6) in West Point, New York last season.

Much like a season ago, the Black Knights enter the matchup with the Hilltoppers as one of the nation’s leaders in rushing at 298.3 yards per game, good for fifth in the country.

WKU escaped with a win at Navy on Sept. 27, despite allowing 412 rushing yards. The Hilltoppers limited Army and Navy, both top-ranked rushing offenses last season, to 277 and 86 yards on the ground, respectively.

Army and Navy have similar game plans in regards to their triple-options, but according to defensive coordinator Nick Holt, the Black Knights throw some curveballs at opponents more often than the Midshipmen.

“Obviously, they’re both triple-option,” Holt said. “They do a lot of the same concepts. Army probably gives a lot more different looks as far as some different formations. They’ll get into some two-back stuff, they get into some shotgun stuff. Kind of some stuff you see in our conference. They’ll spread it out, so we have to prepare for anything.”

The Hilltoppers need to win two of the remaining three games in order to nab a bowl bid, and with two of the three in Smith Stadium, that task should be attainable. However, according to redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tanner Reeves, WKU is taking it one game at a time.

“We’re in a playoff, we have to win out to get a bowl,” Reeves said. “We just have to take it one game at a time. If we don’t win, we don’t have a chance. So it’s play to win.”