WKU turns to freshmen on the right side of the offensive line

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For the present, Western Kentucky has to figure out a way to win at least once – if not every time out – in its three final games of the regular season to try to get in a bowl game.

For the future, first-year WKU coach Mike Sanford has turned to a pair of freshmen on the right side of the offensive line.

“I was a little nervous,” Cole Spencer said about making his first career start Saturday at Vanderbilt. “But along with nervousness I felt like I was prepared, like I was ready and that I worked for it.”

Spencer took the field at right tackle in lieu of redshirt-senior Matt Nord. The lineup change is one Sanford hopes pays dividends in the long run and one he hopes sparks more physical play down the stretch.

The 6-foot-4, 285-pound Spencer was preparing for a second-round state playoff game against Eastern High School at this time last year. The Trinity graduate helped the Shamrocks to a 56-21 state championship win over Lafayette three weeks later at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

It now appears he has a lot more games to play in that stadium in the years to come.

“Throughout the course of the (Vanderbilt) game, I had to talk to him because he was getting so hard on himself – which is a good thing,” WKU redshirt-junior running back D’Andre Ferby said. “But he’s going to be very talented, so I’m excited to see the years to come.”

To Spencer’s left Saturday was Tyler Witt, a 6-foot-2, 300-pound native of Joliet, Ill., who started the prior week against Florida Atlantic. Witt redshirted in 2016 while awaiting his time on the field.

That time is now for the new right guard on WKU’s offensive front.

“I’m really, really excited because I’ve worked really hard for it,” Witt said. “It’s just been all paying off, all the stuff in the weight room, all the extra stuff I’ve done on the side, so it’s really nice to see that my hard work has paid off.”

Witt, Spencer and the rest of the WKU offensive line have their work cut out for them this week and beyond. The Hilltoppers (5-4, 3-2 Conference USA) face a Marshall defense allowing just 131.3 yards per game on the ground. Only Florida International has been able to eclipse the 200-yard rushing mark against the Thundering Herd (6-3, 3-2 CUSA) this season.

That wouldn’t seem to bode well for a Western team which has become the nation’s worst at running the football after nine games. The WKU offense, for that reason and more, has placed a renewed emphasis on physicality in the days leading up to a trip to Huntington, W. Va.

“We’re just going in the film room and seeing – going over the mistakes that we made and just saying, ‘This really can’t happen,’ just kinda turning to each other and saying, ‘We need to step it up,’ ” Witt said. “We need to have much better week of practice and all around getting in to watch more film and just holding each other more accountable for everything.

“I think a lot of people had a wake-up call when we watched that (Vanderbilt) tape. We all looked around and we’re like, ‘We are a lot better than what we showed on tape this past weekend.’ I think it showed (Tuesday), we had a really good practice and just gotta keep going.”

Western Kentucky will be without running back Quinton Baker for the rest of the year due to injury, another blow to the team’s already-maligned ground attack. It’ll be up to Ferby, who was expected to have a breakout season this year, to become the workhorse out of the backfield for the final quarter of the season.

Will his permanent presence along with a couple new fixtures on the offensive line be the key to a turnaround? Time will tell.

“You look in the room with us and see the guys who are in there and it’s the million-dollar question why we haven’t been able to click in the run game because all the guys in there are talented. We’ve shown that in past years,” Ferby said. “I’m still very optimistic that a big run game is gonna come in these next three games. Just gotta keep going.

“It’s frustrating. I go home and scratch my head, like, ‘What’s going on?’ But like I said I’m very optimistic that a big game is gonna come from one of us. It’s gonna happen.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop