Last October, the WKU football team led Old Dominion 34-27 with 1:32 on the clock.
Over the next several minutes, the 13,269 people in Houchens-Smith Stadium watched as the Hilltoppers gave up a 79-yard touchdown drive and let the Monarchs kick a game-winning field goal on a third consecutive untimed down.
SB Nation later called WKU’s 37-34 loss to ODU on Oct. 20, 2018 — which featured 15 plays in the last 97 seconds, six plays in the last nine seconds and three plays in the last zero seconds of clock time — “one of the wildest endings in football history.”
Close to a year later, WKU (2-2, 2-0 C-USA) is led by an almost entirely new coaching staff and has rekindled optimism for its 2019 season after a solid 20-13 win over defending Conference USA Champion Alabama-Birmingham (3-1, 0-1 C-USA) last Saturday.
The Hilltoppers will head to S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday for their first meeting with ODU since last year’s headline-making affair, and first-year head coach Tyson Helton said the current staff isn’t shying away from the “tough” loss WKU suffered in 2018.
“I felt for the previous staff to be quite honest with you,” Helton said. “Sometimes as coaches you try to do everything you can. You try to check every box, dot every I, cross every T, go over every scenario and it just happens to be one of those fluke things that happens from time to time. We’ll address it, talk about it and we’ll walk through all those different scenarios. But that’s the beauty of football — you just never know what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it such a great sport.”
Although WKU will relive last year’s bizzare game on tape, Helton said he sees this game as “a clean slate.” The 2019 Monarchs haven’t played a C-USA game yet, but ODU (1-3) has played well in losses to East Carolina, Virginia Tech and No. 21 Virginia.
The Monarchs had just one win on the year when they stunned WKU in 2018, and if the Hilltoppers don’t want a similar result in 2019, Helton said the offense will have to improve.
“I think right now, our offense is riding the coattails of our defense to be quite honest with you,” Helton said. “I think they know that, I think they’re battling and fighting and I think we got a lot of room for growth offensively and I think their turn will come — I really do. It’s a long season and I think at some point in time we’ll be counting on the offense to go get it done and I think they will go get it done.”
Helton said he was disappointed in the lack of situational awareness from his offense against UAB, including two penalties that erased a pair of scoring opportunities inside the 5-yard line.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis was also unhappy with having two surefire touchdowns erased because of “stupid things,” but he said WKU will be ready to “go out there and play a lot better.”
“We got stupid penalties down there when we didn’t need to and we have to clean that up,” Ellis said. “That’s on us as coaches. There’s an old saying in coaching, you’re either coaching it or you’re allowing it to happen and I can promise you we’re not coaching them to do stupid penalties, so at this point they think that’s okay and they will learn very quickly that it’s not.”
On the other side of the ball, the WKU defense will be looking to continue its recent wave of success, which has featured large numbers of turnovers, sacks and tackles for loss.
Defensive coordinator Clayton White, who coached many current WKU defenders in last year’s game against ODU, said the Hilltoppers are treating this week as a new challenge to conquer.
“We don’t try to use the word revenge,” White said. “The word is focus and just understand doing your job and we all understand that as long as you are doing your job and you’re doing it hard and you put the work in — you don’t put the work in, you’re going to feel bad about some things — but put the work in so however the outcome may come, you at least feel good about your performance because you know you put the work in.”
Junior defensive back Trae Meadows said the Hilltopper defense is focused on ODU and the strengths and weaknesses of its players, not dwelling on last week’s stellar performance.
“We just stay dialed in,” Meadows said. “We’re a humble defense. Nobody’s out here arrogant like, ‘Oh yeah we’re going to come and we’re going to just beat everybody.’ I mean, we have that aggressive mentality, but we’re humble about it and we’re just going to come out here and play each play.”
WKU has already matched its conference win total from a year ago, but the Hilltoppers will be looking for a 3-0 start to C-USA play this Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.