Tops looking for first road win at LA Tech

Published 4:25 pm Wednesday, October 4, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowing Green Daily News

Western Kentucky got off to a strong start in Conference USA play with a 21-point home win against Middle Tennessee last week, but now the Hilltoppers have to see if that CUSA success translates on the road.

WKU (3-2 overall, 1-0 CUSA) have been perfect at Houchens-Smith Stadium so far this season, but are 0-2 on the road as underdogs against then-No. 6 Ohio State and Troy State.

The Hilltoppers, picked to win CUSA by a comfortable margin in the preseason coaches’ poll, are 6 1/2-point favorites against the Bulldogs.

“Big conference game on the road,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said during Monday’s weekly news conference. “I think both LA Tech and ourselves, we have momentum right now, so this is a big conference matchup. If we want to be a good football team that wants to make a conference run, we’ve got to go on the road and go win a close, tough game.

“I know LA Tech will be fired up. They’re a very well-coached football team and they have good players, so we’ve got to come with our best game, but looking forward to that opportunity on a Thursday night. Get a chance to try to get another conference win.”

Coming off its best defensive performance of the season, WKU has but together back-to-back solid efforts on that side of the ball. The Hilltoppers managed to dampen down some of the inflated total yardage they’ve surrendered while continuing their trend of impactful plays with three forced turnovers. WKU leads the nation with 14 forced turnovers this season after ranking No. 1 in college football in that same category last year with (32) along with six defensive touchdowns. The Tops already have two defensive TDs this season, which is tied for second nationally among FBS programs.

“I thought we ran and tackled better,” Helton said. “We corralled the ball better, obviously we got turnovers which is huge for us. That’s our No. 1 thing is getting turnovers and make them kick field goals. We were able to do that for most of the night.”

Under defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, the Tops have developed impressive depth. Last week against MTSU, sixth-year linebacker Bryson Washington made his first career start and won CUSA Defensive Player of the Week honors after finishing with seven tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception and two pass breakups in the win.

“He played two or three different positions for us throughout the game,” Summers said of Washington, a Louisville native. “Really, really just proud for Bryson. He’s a great example of a young man who in a world today where we have so many players coming in and out of our program, he’s a guy that’s stuck through it for six years. He bleeds red and black and was able to have a lot of success in his first game as a starter.”

The Tops also produced their best rushing effort of the season with 147 yards and two touchdowns to back another strong performance by WKU quarterback Austin Reed (30 of 52 passing for 297 yards, 2 TDs). The Hilltoppers continue to be highly effective when in scoring territory, tied for first in the nation in red zone offense after having scored points in every red-zone opportunity they’ve had so far this season.

Louisiana Tech (3-3 overall, 2-2 CUSA) claimed a 24-10 road win at conference rival UTEP last week, but the Bulldogs garnered unwelcome national attention for an in-game incident. Louisiana Tech linebacker Brevin Randle, the team’s second-leading tackler, was caught on camera stomping on UTEP offensive lineman Steven Hubbard’s neck after a play. That action escaped the notice of game officials, but LA Tech announced Randle’s indefinite suspension over the weekend.

Randle’s absence likely hurt a Bulldogs’ defense that has been middle of the pack in CUSA, but is the top-rated group in pass defense allowing only 152 yards per game this season. The Hilltoppers will test that, coming in as CUSA’s top passing attack with 286 yards per game.

On offense, the Bulldogs have used a pair of quarterbacks in Hank Bachmeier and Jack Turner, with wideouts Cyrus Allen and Smoke Harris ranking among the top receivers in CUSA. Bachmeier has missed the last two weeks due to injury, with Turner filling in full time.

“They find a lot of different ways to get him the ball,” Summers said of Harris. “Every type of play you can have, he gets it.”

Harris is a threat all over the field, as evidenced by his 68-yard punt return for a score last week against UTEP.

It will be WKU’s first trip to Ruston, La., since the 2018 season when the Tops claimed a 30-15 win at Joe Aillet Stadium. The Bulldogs still hold a 5-4 advantage in the all-time series, which takes back to a first meeting in 1939. Game time is 7 p.m. with ESPNU handling the national broadcast, and WKLX (SAM 100.7 FM) and WWKU (ESPN Radio 102.7 FM) airing the game on the radio.