Toppers confident for rivalry game against Middle Tennessee

Brad Stephens

After WKU defeated Louisiana-Lafayette Oct. 23, coaches and players admitted the next week of practice wasn’t their finest.

An embarrassing Homecoming loss to North Texas was the consequence.

But compared to that week, players said the Toppers have handled practices following their second win, a 36-35 overtime victory against Arkansas State, better than they did after their first victory.

The Toppers were flying around the practice field Wednesday with the energy that head coach Willie Taggart likes to call “juice.”

“We’ve got a lot of energy and a lot of momentum,” senior linebacker Thomas Majors said. “Everybody’s hyped.”

A lot of the energy can be attributed to WKU’s opponent for Saturday, Middle Tennessee.

Located in Murfreesboro, Tenn., about 90 miles from WKU’s campus, MTSU is the Toppers’ geographical Sun Belt Conference rival.

The programs have faced each other 60 times, the most recent coming last year as the Blue Raiders handed WKU a 62-24 defeat in Murfreesboro.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes called the Middle Tennessee game WKU’s “Super Bowl.”

“They embarrassed us last year, and we’re coming out for revenge,” Jakes said.

Middle Tennessee is going through a down year after lofty preseason expectations.

The Blue Raiders are just 3-6 overall, with a 2-3 record in Sun Belt play.

Middle Tennessee’s primary problem this year has been a historically dreadful turnover margin.

The Blue Raiders have turned the ball over 31 times this season while forcing only 11 turnovers, which equates to a -2.22 turnover margin. That puts them at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

In fact, if Middle Tennessee keeps turning the ball over at the same rate, they will have the worst single-season turnover margin in the entire FBS since 1997, when Louisiana-Lafayette recorded a -2.36.

Surprisingly, senior quarterback Dwight Dasher, the 2010 Sun Belt preseason offensive player of the year, has been one of the problems for the Blue Raiders.

In 2009, Dasher became just the fourth player in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,500 yards in the same season, and led Middle Tennessee to a 10-3 record.

But his 2010 season has been terrible since before it even began.

On Aug. 27, days before his team was to play its home opener against Minnesota, Dasher was suspended after an NCAA investigation found that he failed to repay a loan given to him to cover gambling debts.

He sat for the first four games.

In the five games since his return, Dasher has thrown for three touchdowns and twelve interceptions.

Dasher comes into Houchens-Smith Stadium a week after the Toppers forced five turnovers against Arkansas State.

Majors flashed a grin when asked about Dasher’s turnover woes.

“I hope he throws that 13th interception to me,” he said. “But we’re going to approach it like he’s the best quarterback in the Sun Belt.”

Junior defensive end Jared Clendenin agreed that his team needs to capitalize on Middle Tennessee’s turnover woes.

“They’re out there giving them away, so a big key for us to win is that we take some,” Clendenin said.

He added that the defensive mindset going into Saturday’s contest is a far cry from the way it was going into last season’s matchup, when the Toppers were suffering through a 0-12 campaign.

“It’s a 180 degree change,” Clendenin said. “We’ve got new coaches, new personnel, new formations, new plays, new everything. It’s just a whole new team.”

While the defense is confident for Saturday, offensively the Toppers will get a boost from the addition of sophomore tight end Jack Doyle, who had limited reps against Arkansas State after sitting out the previous two games with a neck injury.

Jakes said he was excited about having Doyle on the field with freshman tight end Demetrius Coley, who had been filling the void in Doyle’s absence.

He added that a group effort at wide receiver has helped make up for the absence of sophomore Marcus Vasquez, out for the year with a collarbone injury.

“Any time Jack Doyle is on the field I feel like he’s a target,” Jakes said. “And Dexter Haynes, Jamarielle Brown, and Quinterrance Cooper have all stepped up for Vasquez.”

With both the offense and defense full of confidence, Majors said expectations for Saturday’s game are high.

“We’re ready to come out here and be a dominant team, and show them what we’re really capable of doing,” he said.