WKU aiming to boost résumé at No. 19 Marshall

Redshirt senior Willie McNeal celebrates with redshirt junior Tim Gorski (86) during the first half of the WKU vs. UTSA game on Nov. 22. Mike Clark/HERALD

Elliott Pratt

HUNTINGTON, W.V. – Western Kentucky players and coaches believe the team is playing its best football of the season.

The Hilltoppers (6-5, 3-4 Conference USA) are currently riding a three game win streak with a chance to boost their regular season resume with a win at No. 19 Marshall on Friday.

But the stakes are high for both teams.

WKU, now bowl eligible for the fourth straight season, understands that being the first team to defeat the Thundering Herd will only strengthen its chances at a post season invitation, which has only happened once in the past three years despite its eligibility.

Marshall (11-0, 7-0 C-USA) is one of two unbeaten FBS teams (Florida State) and hopes to complete an undefeated season with the chance to play on New Year’s Day by beating WKU.

“I think we understand we’re totally the underdog, but I think we’re playing now with some confidence,” coach Jeff Brohm said. “I think we know that we’ve improved a little bit every week.”

The game pits two of the nation’s top offenses with WKU averaging 42 points per game, good for eighth in the nation behind quarterback Brandon Doughty, who leads the NCAA with 36 TD passes and ranks second with 3,853 passing yards.

Marshall ranks fourth nationally with 45 points per game while running back Devon Johnson leads with 16 scores on 1,573 rushing yards, good for fourth nationally.

But Marshall enters the game having barely escaped from UAB with a 23-18 win in which Ra’Shawde Myers recovered a UAB fumble in the endzone for the winning score. The season finale comes at a perfect time for WKU’s defense that’s playing with a newfound confidence after holding UTSA to one score in a 45-7 blowout. Since its Nov. 1 game at Louisiana Tech where WKU allowed 59 points, the defense has only allowed 19 points and 320 yards per game.

“It shows that we’re peaking at the right time of the season,” linebacker Dejon Brown said. “The end of the season is where you want to be playing your best football. This last game did help a lot with our confidence.”

No matter the outcome of Jeff Brohm’s first season as coach, WKU is assured of at least a .500 record despite what other coaches have done as successors to Bobby Petrino, who went 8-4 in his lone season at WKU in 2013. Steve Kragthorpe followed Petrino during his first stint at Louisville and went 6-6 in 2007 but was fired after going 15-21 in three years. Following Petrino’s dismissal at Arkansas in April 2012, John L. Smith took over on an interim basis and went 4-8.

However, WKU isn’t satisfied with the bare minimum. Brohm called the last four games of the season the team’s “playoffs” and now they’ve reached the championship against the leagues best team.

“We’re a team that has played well lately, but we’ve struggled at times during the year and I’m sure they’ve seen where we’ve struggled and are going try to exploit that,” Brohm said. “We couldn’t ask for a better championship game in our mind to see if we can knock off the champion the last game of the year.”