The WKU football team (8-4, 6-2 C-USA) was teetering on the edge of a disastrous meltdown entering the final month of the 2019 regular season.
Following back-to-back losses against Marshall (8-4, 6-2 C-USA) on Oct. 26 and Florida Atlantic (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) on Nov. 2, the Hilltoppers found themselves removed from the Conference USA East Division race with the final stretch of the season on the horizon.
The Hilltoppers had been sitting at five wins since Homecoming, and reaching bowl eligibility would get no easier for the squad during its final three games in November.
Road games against SEC opponent Arkansas (2-10, 0-8 SEC) and surging Southern Mississippi (7-5, 5-3 C-USA) awaited along with the annual 100 Miles of Hate rivalry game against Middle Tennessee State (4-8, 3-5 C-USA) on WKU’s Senior Day.
Adversity mounted against WKU, but the Hilltoppers’ response allowed for a November that first-year head coach Tyson Helton will always be remembered for.
Helton knew the final three games of the regular season would be crucial, especially after dropping two games in a row. He said his message to the team wouldn’t change, but he uttered a mantra prior to the Arkansas game that’s stuck with him ever since.
“I do tell our football team that you’re evaluated by your full body of work,” Helton said on Nov. 4. “There’s a statement, ‘What you do in November, they remember.’ You know, September’s come and gone, October’s come and gone, and down the stretch is kind of what you’re remembered for. I think everybody will look back on this football season and say this team played really hard and positioned themselves to go win games.”
The Hilltoppers did just that. Only one year removed from a 3-9 season in 2018, Helton nearly reversed the record by finishing 2019 on a three-game winning streak.
Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey led a 45-19 thrashing of his former Arkansas teammates on Nov. 9, the WKU defense stifled Southern Miss in a 28-10 blowout win on Nov. 23 and the Hilltoppers rallied to defeat rival MTSU 31-26 on Saturday.
Although the year started off with a loss to Football Championship Subdivision program Central Arkansas, Helton said it might’ve been the best thing to happen to his squad.
“I felt like it gave us an edge,” Helton said. “Made us not take anything for granted. Made us know we had to play a whole game of four quarters. It taught us to believe in each other and fight and battle for each other. Taught us not to be complacent. It taught us at any given day, it doesn’t matter who you play, you can win or lose. At the end of the day, I look at it as probably, maybe it was a positive. That’s how I would look at it. You have to take advantage of learning lessons. Learn from all your failures.”
Storey said he thoroughly enjoyed his lone season on the Hill and loved watching the team grow closer each week.
“It’s been one of the more fun years to be a part of,” Storey said. “A lot
of it is the guys, the coaching staff, everyone, winning on top of that. It’s a feeling you wish everyone could feel. How close we’ve come together throughout the year. Yeah, we’ve had some ups and downs and everything, but at the end of the day it’s made us all closer and realize that there’s something bigger than just individual people.”
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Juwuan Jones credited an attitude change in 2019 with playing a big part in the turnaround from 2018.
“We just have a different mentality,” Jones said. “This year, you can tell
on the sideline, we are keeping each other up. We’re motivating the offense while the offense is motivating us, and I think that’s the biggest difference between this year and last year.”
Although the goal of winning a C-USA Championship wasn’t attained, Helton said the team “took a big step this year” and gained traction heading into 2020.
“I expect to win them all,” Helton said postgame. “I know y’all think that. I really do. Everyone says, ‘Did you expect to be sitting here with eight wins?’ I hope I would. Ball could’ve bounced the other way too and not won several games. That’s all up to the good Lord. My job as a coach and our staff is to try to coach as hard as we can and put kids in positions to make plays ... I hoped we would have a good season, but at the end of the day I’ll sleep good because it’s all in God’s hands.”
With a bowl game on the horizon, Helton said the momentum of the three-game winning streak will help with confidence and the practices that lead up to the postseason.
“It carries the momentum for us,” Helton said. “You feel good going into the bowl. It makes practice a lot better. You hate having a couple weeks of practicing coming off a loss. You just have that sour taste in your mouth. It just continues the good vibes. Now you gain confidence more and more, and we’ll see where the bowl picture goes and what our matchup is, but whoever we play will be a quality opponent.”
The Hilltoppers will know their bowl destination by the time conference championship games are finished on Saturday, but WKU’s game could also leak earlier in the week.
Latest bowl projections for WKU
ESPN: Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl vs. Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas, OR SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Dallas vs. SMU
247Sports: Music City Bowl vs. North Carolina in Nashville
Sporting News: New Mexico Bowl vs. Utah State in Albuquerque, New Mexico
CollegeFootballNews.com: Walk-On’s Independence Bowl vs. Florida State in Shreveport, Louisiana
What they’re saying...
Head coach Tyson Helton: “I would love to go to a warm weather bowl. And I would like to play before Christmas. There’s nothing better than that. That’s not up to us though. We’ll be happy wherever we go. Our kids will be really happy to have the opportunity to play one more game one more time.”
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Juwuan Jones: “It’s between three. I’ve already thought about this a lot. New Orleans, Tampa or the Bahamas. I’ll be good with any three of those places.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Clay Davis: “I would love to go to the Bahamas because I’ve never been to Atlantis before. But just for family members and getting fans, I think the New Orleans or Tampa Bowl could be a pretty good one to go to.”
Redshirt senior receiver Lucky Jackson: “Anywhere where the sun is. I’m not really picky. I’m glad we got that extra game. Anywhere where it’s heat, I wouldn’t mind.”
Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey: “We’re down for wherever honestly.”