While the season opener wasn’t quite what the Hilltoppers were hoping for, the WKU football team will look to get in the win column in its first Conference USA matchup this weekend.
WKU (0-1) will travel to Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami to square off with Florida International (0-1) on Saturday night.
Head coach Tyson Helton will be seeking his first career victory at the helm of the Hilltopper program, while WKU will be seeking its first gridiron victory on the young season.
FIU struggled in its opening matchup, losing in blowout fashion at Tulane (1-0) on Aug. 29. The Green Wave rolled the Panthers from start to finish, eventually posting an easy 42-14 win.
The all-time series between WKU and FIU is currently tied at 6-6.
In the last meeting between the two schools, the Panthers came to Bowling Green on Oct. 27, 2018. FIU blew out the Hilltoppers 38-17 to spoil WKU’s homecoming festivities a year ago.
WKU is on a two-game losing streak to FIU over the last two seasons, but Helton’s message to this year's team is simple: be ready to win.
“Get ready to go down there and go get a win,” Helton said on Thursday. “I have full intentions on doing everything we can to go win the game. You have to have your mind right, have it set, ready to go.”
Helton is aware of the challenge this matchup will present since the Panthers are also trying to recover from a tough loss in their season-opening contest.
“They got something to prove,” Helton said. “They just came off of a loss. They got good players, good coaches. We got good players, good coaches. It'll be two teams that are mad and trying to get a win.”
From an offensive standpoint, WKU has a good matchup on paper against the Panther run defense — Tulane churned out 350 rushing yards on 49 attempts against FIU last week.
The WKU offensive line performed well in a 35-28 loss to Central Arkansas, creating gaping holes for redshirt junior running back Gaej Walker to run through on his way to a massive 152-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Bears.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said the WKU offense will look to exploit that weakness in the FIU defense on Saturday.
“We’re gonna try to expose it too,” Ellis said on Tuesday. “Tulane is really good. We’ll see if we can exploit some things as well. We’ll lean on our backs. I thought our backs outperformed on Thursday based on what I thought they would do. We’ll lean on them and see how we come out on Saturday.”
Defensively, limiting big plays will be key. The Breylin Smith-to-Lujuan Winningham connection UCA employed against WKU proved to be lethal.
Winningham finished with 222 receiving yards and three touchdowns on eight catches, while Smith threw for 324 yards and three scores last week.
Defensive coordinator Clayton White said the first game was a learning experience that will help his unit going forward.
“You just gotta learn from it,” White said on Wednesday. “Understand that’s football, that’s life. I want to take responsibility on that as the defensive coordinator and understand that those mistakes can’t happen at crucial times.”
White will look to build on his unit’s run defense, which allowed only 20 yards on 29 carries against UCA. But White said he’s looking for a more cohesive performance defensively.
“The first thing we preach to our guys is team defense,” White said. “It’s one of those things where we gotta balance it out just a little bit more as far as how we play. I think the defensive line did an outstanding job of maintaining the line of scrimmage and allowed guys to go through and make plays. It’s team defense all the way over, the team gave up 29 yards, not just the defensive line, that’s how we preach to our guys.”
The Hilltoppers and Panthers kick off at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.