The WKU football team (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) secured its bowl bid with a dominant 28-10 win at Southern Mississippi last weekend, but the Hilltoppers will still have plenty to play for during Rivalry Week.
WKU and Middle Tennessee State (4-7, 3-4 C-USA) will polish off the 2019 regular season by renewing the annual 100 Miles of Hate rivalry game in Houchens-Smith Stadium this weekend.
MTSU is coming off a 38-17 blowout win over Old Dominion (1-10, 0-7 C-USA) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, last weekend.
The Blue Raiders also knocked off the Hilltoppers in their last meeting — a 29-10 win in Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium on Nov. 2, 2018 — to take a 35-32-1 lead in the heated all-time series.
WKU and MTSU didn’t meet between Oct. 5, 1991, and Sept. 20, 2007, but the Blue Raiders have claimed 6-of-11 games over the Hilltoppers since the rivalry contest was renewed 12 years ago.
Four games have gone to overtime since the 100 Miles of Hate game returned as a yearly tradition, and all four of those matchups have gone to either double or triple overtime.
WKU is 3-1 in those games, including a 41-38 win in three overtimes on Nov. 17, 2017, the last time the two teams met in Bowling Green.
Despite trailing in the overall series, WKU also leads 19-15 in the 34 games played in Bowling Green.
Pride and bragging rights will be on the line during the regular-season finale, but the game will also be the Hilltoppers’ Senior Day.
Festivities to honor the WKU senior class are slated to take place around 30 minutes before 14 Hilltoppers take the field at home for the final time as players on the Hill.
Head coach Tyson Helton said he’s happy with the way his entire squad has performed down the stretch during the 2019 campaign, but he wants to end the regular season on a high note.
“I didn't know what we would be like going into the season, to be honest with you,” Helton said. “I hoped that we would be a good football team. But every coach takes pride in not where a team starts but how they finish. I just really feel like our guys are coming down the stretch finishing strong. There's been a lot of growth and a lot of development as a team.
"It's a special thing to have that bond with your players. I feel like we have something special moving forward here. I want to make sure though that we finish it the right way with a win this week."
MTSU coach Rick Stockstill spoke highly of graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey, the entire WKU defensive unit and called the Hilltoppers “a really good football team" overall.
The 2018 Conference USA Coach of the Year said MTSU will need to be “mentally and physically ready to go” against its archrival.
“The players in the game, they only know this rivalry probably since the time they’ve been at their respective schools,” Stockstill said. “The fans, they’ve known it for the past 30 years, when it goes back to whenever we first started playing. That adds to it. As a player, I don’t think you look at, ‘I want to beat this team so they don’t do this,’ or ‘I want to beat this team so they can’t do that.’
“I don’t think players look at games like that. I think players look at — or should look at it — as, ‘We want to win this game for us.’ We want to do whatever it takes to win this game for us.”
The WKU offense continued its recent success last weekend, as the Hilltoppers didn’t turn the football over a single time and also went 2 for 3 on fourth-down conversions against Southern Miss.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said he’s proud of the growth his offense has shown throughout the season, especially in two consecutive standout performances.
“Those guys have really progressed week in, week out,” Ellis said. "We got a lot of good, talented kids behind them, but as a coach we put ones out there that we feel can give us the best chance to win. We’ve been fortunate to go out with the ones we have. Hopefully they can make it one or two more weeks.”
Redshirt senior receiver Quin Jernighan said it’s key for WKU to take this game seriously, even against a team with a losing record.
“We don’t need to take them lightly,” Jernighan said. “We need to go out there and execute early like we always do. It’s a rivalry game, so we want to play our hearts out in the final game.”
MTSU redshirt senior safety Jovante Moffatt said the Blue Raiders will “have to be ready for anything” against WKU because “there is a lot of animosity built up” on both sides.
“There have always been games that have gone more than four quarters,” Moffatt said. “I came in my freshman year, it was a really competitive game. Sophomore year, overtime. Junior year, overtime. You never know what to expect going into this game. This week, I’m going to be ready to play, no matter what comes our way.”
The Hilltopper defense continued its torrid season against the Golden Eagles, stifling a Southern Miss offense that averaged 30 points per game and adding in a key defensive touchdown.
Defensive coordinator Clayton White said intense focus throughout the season has allowed his unit to see positive results.
“The progression has been pretty good with our guys,” White said. “Just the focus from the beginning of the week all the way to the end of the week. We go out there on Saturdays and play.
"The offense does a really good job of marching the ball down the field and getting off the field. It’s a team effort. Our guys do a really good job of focusing in from Sunday all the way ‘till the end of the game. I think that’s the progression.”
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin said the confidence in the Hilltopper locker room is currently as high as it’s been all year.
“I think this year we grew as a team,” Darvin said. “Confidence is through the roof. I think this year everyone just hones in on doing their jobs. We don’t have a lot of guys trying to do too much. Everyone is doing their job and trusting that your teammates will do their job. That’s really, really big for us.”
Helton said “records don’t matter” in the upcoming rivalry game between WKU and MTSU, which will be the 69th all-time meeting between the Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders.
"Our guys are a mature bunch,” Helton said. “They know it's a big game. A lot of these guys have been in this game before, they understand that there's always been back-and-forth between the two schools as far as one year one team wins and the next year the other team wins. We just have to make sure we take care of business. They will be here ready to play, and we will get their best game. We've got to match that intensity.
"Our guys are very excited for it to be the last game of the season at home against a conference rival — couldn't have a better way to try to finish out the season on a winning note — but it's going to take our best effort to make that happen."
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.