Hilltoppers off to Huntington to face emotionally-charged Herd

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It had been 28 years since Western Kentucky last visited Huntington, W. Va. But all it took was for one play in 2014 to ignite a serious rivalry between WKU and Marshall University.

Brandon Doughty’s two-point conversion pass to Willie McNeal, followed by Doughty’s signal to the crowd that the game was indeed fatally over, ruined the Thundering Herd’s perfect '14 season in a 67-66 thriller. Marshall hasn’t been able to beat Western in two tries since.

The 2017 team is faced with another upset opportunity this time around.

“I liked our week of practice,” WKU Mike Sanford said about his team’s preparedness for the showdown. “I liked the way that our guys have energy – that’s really what we’re at. We’re at the fourth quarter of our season. Last guaranteed three games and we gotta go out and put our best football in the fourth quarter of the season, 25 percent of our season remaining and against some rivalries.

“We’re excited about this one against Marshall.”

Marshall still went on to win the Conference USA championship in ’14. The following year it played for the East Division title in Bowling Green and lost 49-28.

Last year at Edwards Stadium the Hilltoppers won 60-6 in the worst loss for MU in that stadium in the program’s history.

“It's kind of a hard one to forget, that's for sure,” MU coach Doc Holliday said this week. “That was about as ugly as it gets.”

And that game won’t be the only significant memory on the minds of those in green and white this week. Saturday’s game, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. CST, will serve as the annual contest that honors the Nov. 14, 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people – including 37 Marshall football players and Marshall nine coaches.

The Herd (6-3, 3-2 Conference USA) will don helmets with the number “75” on the sides and fans have been asked to make the atmosphere a blackout.

“We wanted to make sure as a team we respect that tradition that Marshall has put in place, but also that’s something that as a football program stays with you forever,” Sanford said. “That’s something that’s good to educate your players about. Obviously they have a blackout to honor that as well.

“We expect a raucous environment from, obviously, fans that are honoring something that was significant in their program and something that was significant across the landscape of college athletics.”

When the game itself begins, all those extraneous factors will be forgotten while both teams try to break their respective two-game losing streaks and keep their slim hopes of winning a conference championship alive. Each has their own issues to overcome while pursuing victory.

Marshall is looking to rebound from a 41-30 home loss to Florida International and 30-25 road loss to Florida Atlantic. Quarterback Chase Litton threw six interceptions combined in those defeats and MU had a turnover margin of -7 in those games.

Western (5-4, 3-2 CUSA) is coming off a 42-28 loss at home to FAU and a 31-17 loss at Vanderbilt. The Hilltoppers finished the latter setback with -6 yards rushing and gave up six sacks.

“We’re playing for pride, and we’re gonna see who the men are with this team,” WKU redshirt-sophomore defensive back Ta’Corian Darden said. “We’re not gonna quit. We’re playing for this next win, which hopefully comes next game. Three games left and we wanna win all three.”

The Hilltoppers have been on the cusp of bowl eligibility since beating Old Dominion on Oct. 20. The next two games went the opposite direction despite being undecided until the fourth quarter.

A win Saturday for the Tops would prolong a streak of at least six wins for the seventh straight season and give WKU a 10th straight conference win in the month of November. It also hasn’t dropped three consecutive games since November of 2012.

“That’s the main thing is just knowing that we still have something to play for, just keeping the guys’ head still in the game in practice throughout the course of the week before a game,” WKU redshirt-junior running back D’Andre Ferby said. “Just letting them know we still got something to play for, which is a bowl game and also our pride.”

Conference USA East Division teams will enter the weekend in a still murky title hunt, although FAU (5-0) has put itself in the best position to take the race by the horns. An Owls’ win at Louisiana Tech on Saturday eliminates the loser of the WKU-MU game.

But the winner of the WKU-MU game can still hope for a multiple-team tie atop the standings or for FAU and FIU (3-1) to finish with three league losses.

That will all work itself out down the stretch. In the meantime Marshall and Western Kentucky have to figure out a way to survive 60 minutes Saturday night in West Virginia.

“What you see on tape from Marshall is a team that’s got a ton of speed, a ton of athleticism,” Sanford said. “There’s gonna be some challenges ahead for us. We gotta deal with a defense that’s been playing at a very high level the majority of the season. Statistically one of the best defenses we’ll face all year. Then on the other side of the ball, got some terrific weapons. Wide receivers are as good as we’ve seen – probably have, maybe, the best wide receiver we’ve seen on the season.

“We have to do a good job of playing team defense, we have to find a way to create some pressure – it’s a quarterback (Litton) that hasn’t taken sacks this year. They’ve done some really good stuff on tape.”

NOTES

• WKU last played conference road games at the same opponent in consecutive years when it traveled to Akron in both 1980 and 1981.

• White needs one touchdown passes to move into second on the program’s career TD passing list. White is tied with Kawaun Jakes who finished with 51 in his career. Brandon Doughty tops the list with 111.

• White needs 17 more completions to pass Justin Haddix (541) for career completions at WKU.

• WKU is 33-8 in its last 41 games and 58-27 since start of 2011.

• The Hilltoppers are 14-2 in their last 16 November games.

• Western last lost three straight games by double digits Sept. 1-17, 2011 when it fell in defeat to Kentucky (11), Navy (26) and Indiana State (28).

• Marshall and WKU have met eight times in a series dating back to 1941. Each team has won four times and Western owns a current three-game winning streak.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop