Hilltoppers ride momentum into matchup against first-place Bulldogs


It took Western Kentucky four tries to earn their first victory in Conference USA, and hopefully it doesn’t take that long again to win number two.

Unfortunately, the competition doesn’t get any easier, as the Hilltoppers travel south this weekend to take on the first-place Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, in a match up between a high-powered offense (WKU), and a stellar defense (Tech).

The Hilltoppers come into the game with a 3-4 (1-3 C-USA) record, but have blown double-digit leads in each loss. WKU holds the smallest combined margin of defeat in the FBS amongst teams with four or more losses.

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The Bulldogs sit at 5-3 (4-0), and need one win to become bowl eligible. More importantly, they need to continue winning to stay on top of the C-USA West Division and on par with East Division leader Marshall, who is undefeated and currently ranked 23rd in the AP and Coaches’ Polls.

Even though the Hilltoppers are all but eliminated from any championship hopes, this game is still equally as important for them. A win would get the team back to .500 for the year, and another game closer to becoming bowl eligible, which they’ve been for the past three years.

So what do the Hilltoppers need to do on Saturday to pull off the upset?

On paper, this is the best defense the Hilltoppers have faced all year. Tech thrives on being a pressure defense, forcing no gain or negative yardage plays at a high rate. But the weakness of a pressure defense is it’s tendency to leave things open in the passing game.

That means WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty must make smart reads and get rid of the ball quickly. He’s had good success in that area so far this season, throwing 24 touchdowns (a Hilltopper single-season record) to four interceptions, while only being sacked 11 times.

The Tops must make good use of screen passes and quick routes if they want to open up their high-powered offense. Look for Doughty to throw quick, short passes to receivers Taywan Taylor, Willie McNeal and Antwane Grant as well as tight end Mitchell Henry. Starting running back Leon Allen, an underrated receiver, could also have a big game catching the ball out of the backfield. If the short passing game is established, it allows WKU to open up its playbook to incorporate longer throws and draw plays. WKU’s speed back Ace Wales, who has emerged as a legitimate second back during the past few games, should have a good opportunity to shine this game.

Balance will be key offensively to win this game. The Bulldogs will throw a lot of different blitz packages at WKU, so the Hilltoppers must take whatever the defense is gives them – whether its running the football of dropping back and throwing it.

Defensively, WKU must stop one of the conference’s most balanced offenses, led by Iowa-transfer quarterback Cody Sokol and running back Kenneth Dixon.

Sokol has adjusted well to C-USA after a year in the Big Ten. So far this season, he has thrown for 1,978 yards and 17 touchdowns, while completing 57.6% of his passes. Sokol does a good job of spreading the ball around – the Bulldogs have six receivers with 15 or more receptions – but his favorite target is Trent Taylor, who has 32 receptions for 425 yards and two touchdowns.

Dixon leads the Bulldogs rushing attack with 681 yards on 151 carries, and has scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He also has 18 receptions for 208 yards and four receiving touchdowns.

If WKU wants to be successful, they must contain at least one of Sokol or Dixon and limit their impact on the game – something that four other C-USA teams have been unable to do.

Having said all that, Tech has been plagued by slow starts on offense this year. That bodes well for the Hilltoppers, who have typically hit the ground running, or throwing, right out of the gate. However, Tech seems to always find their stride later in the game, and we all know about WKU’s second half struggles.

WKU must show up and land the first punch. If the Hilltoppers can take an early lead, it will increase their chances of victory. But WKU must also play the entire game and avoid a second-half slump. The defense must remain focused, and the offense must perform at its highest level.

It will be a tall order for the Toppers to steal a game at Tech, but I know that WKU is a much better team than what their record suggests. Hopefully last week’s victory against Old Dominion was a step in the right direction, and the Hilltoppers can use that momentum to roll through the second half of their schedule.

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