WKU Football: Keys to Victory vs. MTSU
Western Kentucky now has a nice win on its resume, squashing the Charlotte 49ers 45–13 at Homecoming in the Houch. WKU had been beating up on Conference USA bottom feeders while losing to quality opponents. Now, WKU can claim a win against a team that should finish with a bowl berth.
As fancy as that sounds, it means virtually nothing. However, the win itself kept WKU completely in the C-USA East title picture. With FAU and Marshall playing this week, if WKU just takes care of business against its oldest (current) rival, Western would now be in prime position to take the East. WKU would actually have the game against Rice to throw away as long as they beat their remaining East opponents.
That being said, this is yet another week that is crucial because it’s another East opponent WKU can eliminate from contention. Whatever team wins the East and represents this division will have at least six wins in conference, if not seven. At two losses, Middle Tennessee is technically in the race, especially after beating Marshall in early October. Middle only needs to win out and have Marshall lose once, so they still have plenty to play for after being picked to finish fifth in the East. Now they could easily make a bowl game and have an extremely long shot at making the title game.
Middle Tennessee is an interesting football team. They have so far I think massively overachieved according to preseason projections. MTSU legendary quarterback Asher O’Hara is now gone to Sacramento State, which absolutely boggles the mind. I digress…
So MTSU is down a great quarterback, but the Blue Raiders have had Bailey Hockman, a transfer from NC State who left the program after three starts, and Chase Cunningham step up to deliver 16 touchdowns to three interceptions so far this season. However, Cunningham is out this week, so MTSU goes to its third string quarterback, Mike DiLiello, another dual threat type of guy who has thrown for 67 percent completion percentage, albeit in limited action.
That’s perhaps the biggest story of the game on the MTSU side, but Middle also boasts an extremely explosive defense that wreaks all kinds of havoc. MTSU has forced 20 turnovers and 21 sacks in its eight games, amounting to nearly three per game. Everyone knows three turnovers and three or four sacks in the right moments can wreck a football game. Watch out, Tops.
For those that don’t know, WKU’s much maligned defense has massively improved. WKU has gone from averaging nearly 500 yards given up and 40 points to not allowing more than 20 the past three weeks while dropping the yard total by about 50 yards per game. Western’s ridiculous offense boasts well over 500 yards and 40 points per game.
That being said, what are the Keys to Victory in this next version of 100 Miles of Hate?
Keys to Victory
Two or Less Turnovers OR Force Two Yourself
To me, this is the absolute key for the Tops. As I mentioned above, MTSU forces nearly three turnovers per game. That is a game wrecking tendency. Middle beat Marshall by forcing six turnovers. They literally won the game by forcing turnovers. Anyone who believes this is a given is fooling themselves given just this fact. WKU better come ready, and Zappe better not be making silly mistakes throwing across his body or Middle could take it back to the house. Caveat to this issue would be for WKU to flip the tables and force a couple turnovers themselves.
DeAngelo Malone vs. Jordan Ferguson
Both teams have turned out to have excellent pass rushes. So put on your big boy pants and blow up the line of scrimmage. Western’s offensive line has been truly elite, getting national recognition for their efforts as a group. MTSU’s offensive line has given up over two per game while WKU’s barely gives up one per game. If WKU controls the line of scrimmage, can MTSU really outduel the Tops with skill position production? I really like WKU’s chances if WKU controls the line of scrimmage. If not, again, Middle has the capability to blow up the game. Watch out for #91 Jordan Ferguson (7.5 sacks, 13 TFL, three forced fumbles, 11 QB hits) for MTSU. He’s making hay in the backfield three times a game. That’s incredible. Malone is leading the team in tackles from the defensive end position while also producing explosive plays.
No Off Schedule Touchdowns
MTSU has four defensive touchdowns and also have 359 yards just on interception and fumble returns. Wide receiver Jaylin Lane has done an excellent job in the return game while also contributing as the third option at receiver for the Blue Raiders. He does not technically have a touchdown in the run game, but he has a 70 yard punt return and a 46 yard kickoff return. WKU may give up a big play or two, but hopefully they keep MTSU out of the end zone on those big plays. Make them work. Nothing cheap.
Third Down Defense
I specifically highlight the defense. Why? Well, because WKU’s defense gives up the third down conversion 46 percent of the time, while MTSU’s offense only converts 28 percent of the time. Both of those numbers are horrendous, and something has to give. If MTSU could convert 40 percent or more of the time, that completely changes the dynamics of their offense. Conversely, if WKU can hold MTSU under 35 percent on third down, that is a massive coup for the Topper defense regardless of Middle’s tendencies.
Kick Less Field Goals Than MTSU
MTSU is only 4-of-6 from field goal on the season. WKU is 13-of-15. Now, what does that tell us? WKU moves the ball a ton but does have issues finishing drives. MTSU doesn’t trust the kicker to make more than a 32 yarder, which is his longest kick all year. So if WKU can do what I pointed out above and win third down, then MTSU is forced to choose between its kicker and going for it on fourth down. If WKU could finish more drives and keep MTSU out of the end zone (something MTSU does more often than its opponents), again, what options does MTSU have to win the game?
I think every point I made about the keys for this game are about keeping Middle out of the game. I think it’s obvious that WKU should beat the brakes off of Middle Tennessee. However, Middle has a puncher’s chance because they are so randomly destructive to the average. They will not move the ball and then bang there’s a kick return. There’s a long pass play. There’s a 25 yard interception return. That’s incredibly dangerous. I say this a lot: Football is way more about not screwing up than being talented at a few individual positions. In basketball, a couple of great players can carry a team. In football, if you don’t have solid players at every position on both sides of the ball, you’re not going to win very many games. If MTSU could blow things up and wreck a few Hilltopper drives with their pass rush and elite production in the turnover game, watch out. I’m telling you, they’re extremely dangerous.
However, I believe MTSU has too much to overcome this game. If Cunningham was healthy, this game would really be scary. But as I look at everything, Middle just has a lot to overcome. Mark it down: WKU will score 31 or more points. So it’s up to Middle to keep up to at least that. Middle has done that several times this year. However, how do they do that if WKU takes care of its business and doesn’t hand them multiple easy touchdowns? I don’t see it. But I finally am going to believe in the defense and pick a huge impressive blowout. I’ve got WKU 48-Middle Tennessee 17.