Tops aim to keep ground game going after MTSU win

Published 4:16 pm Monday, October 2, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Less than a week after nearly grinding to a halt in a road loss to Troy, Western Kentucky got the ground game going again in Thursday night’s 31-10 win against Middle Tennessee at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The Hilltoppers ran for a season-high 147 yards on 28 carries with a pair of rushing touchdowns. WKU (3-2 overall, 1-0 Conference USA) averaged 5.3 yards per carry, just off the season-best 5.6 yards per run it tallied in the season-opening win against South Florida.

It was a marked improvement in a five-day span after the Tops managed just 13 yards on 13 carries in the 27-24 loss at Troy.

“Coming from the previous week, I think we all understood that we kind of needed to run the ball a little bit more to create more effective plays down the field,” WKU offensive coordinator Drew Hollingshead said. “In the first half, I think we threw for (233 yards). So we saw an advantage to ‘Hey, maybe we got some open boxes. We think we can hand the ball off and kind of create some separation in the run game.’

“ … I think when we kind of saw our chances to run the ball, we took them and our quarterback got us in some great looks and some great checks for us to hand it off and be effective in that way too.”

After managing just 29 rushing yards on 11 carries in the first half, the Tops leaned on the run game late. Much of that situationally made sense – WKU had built a 23-3 lead by the break, largely relying on quarterback Austin Reed’s passing arm and another stellar defensive showing that put the offense in solid scoring position.

The Tops’ running back room still played a key role in building that early lead – as part of the passing attack. Running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter scored the game’s first points when he grabbed a short pass from Reed and took it to the sideline en route to an 18-yard TD reception.

“That play specifically is one of my favorite plays and one of the staples of the Air Raid,” Hollingshead said. “And for us, the quarterback’s read – he’s kind of the last read, the layoff throw. But again, a really, really effective play as you go through your reads and there’s nothing open usually the back on that specific play is open. Derv did a really, really good job checking his protection. He gets out late, Austin finds him and we’ve got some open space down there on the sideline.”

Reed also had a 1-yard rushing touchdown with just nine seconds left in the half, his team-high third this season.

Leading 24-10 early in the fourth quarter, WKU produced a clinching touchdown with a run-heavy 11-play, 57-yard drive. Junior running back Elijah Young finished it off with a dazzling 14-yard touchdown run that featured a highlight-reel leap over a defender on the way to the end zone.

It was Young’s first touchdown as a Hilltopper, and the Missouri transfer admits he’s watched it a few times since Thursday night.

“Quite a bit, I’ll say,” Young said. “But really it just goes back to what we train on. I go by practice how you play and I feel like it just shows off.”

Another WKU takeaway – one of three in the game for the Tops, who lead the nation with 14 forced turnovers – set up another potential scoring drive with just more than three minutes left. Sophomore running back L.T. Sanders shredded the Blue Raiders with a season-high 56-yard run down to the MTSU 38, but the Tops opted to run out the clock from there.

WKU head coach Tyson Helton credited improved offensive line play and Reed with helping spot those crucial openings for the run game to flourish on Thursday.

“I think we did a better job up front in the offensive line, technique-wise,” Helton said. “I think we did a better job as coaches of putting our players in position to make good, quality runs. We weren’t running into loaded boxes. We were running into light boxes. I thought the quarterback did a good job of getting us into runs. For a guy that’s an elite passer, sometimes that’s hard to do. But Austin’s not selfish. I think he three or four times checked us into some good runs.”

Hollingshead said the Tops’ offense line did what the offense needed, when needed, against the Blue Raiders.

“I told those guys all week that the game was going to be won up front,” Hollingshead said. “Whether we were going to run it 60 times or we were going to throw it 60 times, if they played well we were probably going to win the game. They did a really good job holding up in pass protection, and when we really needed the run game to seal the (win), I think they stepped up and played really, really hard and created some open lanes.”

The success in the run game last week hasn’t transformed WKU’s offense going forward – featuring the nation’s leading returning passer in Reed and a deep wide receiving corps headlined by Malachi Corley, the Tops have never sought to achieve any sort of real balance. But before the MTSU game, WKU had struggled to consistently find many spots to effectively utilize its running backs. Even after the solid outing against MTSU, WKU is getting outgained by more than double (1,120-548) in rushing this season.

Unlocking some of that potential in the backfield was a key for helping WKU open Conference USA with a win and will continue to be important the rest of the season starting with Thursday’s road matchup against CUSA foe Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. Game time is 7 p.m. with ESPNU handling the national broadcast.

“I think we offset some tendencies for us this week,” Hollingshead said. “Being able to use our running backs not only in the run game but in the pass game I think helped us a lot to win a really, really crucial ballgame for us and to establish who we want to be going forward.”{&end}