WKU vs MTSU: Blue Raiders bringing staunch defense into rivalry matchup

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WKU Athletics

The last time WKU and MTSU met, the Hilltoppers held on for a 20-17 victory. Another chapter of the famed 100 Miles of Hate rivalry will be written on Saturday.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (4-4, 3-1 C-USA) will be looking for its third consecutive victory against its 100-Miles of Hate rival Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (4-4, 2-2 C-USA) on Saturday afternoon. The Hilltoppers  escaped last year’s matchup with a 20-17 win. 

The Blue Raiders lead the all-time series 36-34-1 with eight of the last 10 matchups coming down to one-possession games. A win for the Hilltoppers would extend their winning streak to four.

Protect the ball 

WKU’s graduate gunslinger Bailey Zappe has thrown six interceptions in 2021 while MTSU’s secondary ranks third in the nation with 13 interceptions and leads the nation with 25 created turnovers.

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Blue Raider redshirt freshman cornerback Quincy Riley leads the team with four interceptions on the season despite missing the first two games of the year.   

The Hilltoppers have turned the ball over in every game but one this fall. MTSU has found ways to force fumbles and leads the nation with 12 fumble recoveries. 

“Ball security drills every week, we get those done and just [keep] harping on it,” WKU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley said. “Our guys understand that Middle Tennessee is one of the best defenses in the conference, number one in the country in taking the ball away from the other team.”

“They really feed off their defense there at Middle,” Kittley continued. “So, just really over-emphasizing that even more so this week, just because they’ve been tremendous all year long at taking them all away.”

On the opposite side of the field, the Hilltoppers have been forcing turnovers in bunches, forcing seven in their last four games. The Blue Raiders have been struggling to hold onto the ball as of late with eight turnovers in their last four games, four last week against Southern Mississippi. 

Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game outright. 

Hilltopper defense faces inconsistent offense

The WKU defense allowed 474.7 yards per game over its first six contests of the season. Since then, it has allowed just 304.5 yards per game, a significant improvement. 

The Hilltopper defense is going up against a Blue Raider offense that ranks third-worst in C-USA in yards per game. MTSU only scored two offensive touchdowns in its 35-10 rout of Southern Miss last Saturday. 

The Blue Raiders average 41 points per game in their wins this year compared to 20 points per game in their losses. If you take out MTSU’s loss to Charlotte where the team scored 39 points, the program averages just 13 points per loss. 

This is a team that cannot be counted on to put up consistent offensive numbers, but can still put up 40+ points on any given weekend.

“I just talk to guys about playing with that chip on their shoulder, talking about start one way, finish the same way,” WKU defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “How we start is how we need to finish. So, as we continue to get better, I think that’s instilled in our guys.”

“It’s easy for our players, because our players love to play, like they look forward to game day,” Crum continued. “They look forward to the opportunity. They want to showcase all the hard work that they put into the week of preparation.” 

The next chapter in the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry will begin at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, Nov. 6 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.