WKU seniors striving to salvage season with win over rival Middle

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Friday’s annual rivalry game between Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee will have a bit of a different feel.

Both teams have been eliminated from Conference USA’s championship race. Both teams have stumbled to a disappointing 5-5 record. Both teams have little left to play for besides pride and the hopes of making the postseason.

And a cool, rainy evening on a Friday will likely diminish chances of a large crowd inside Houchens-Smith Stadium to witness the 67th installment of WKU-MTSU. Perhaps that will allow the two teams to play a little looser.

“Rivalry games are fun. It makes it tougher, it makes it more fun when you go in there with that mindset,” WKU senior quarterback Mike White said. “They’re a very good football team, rivalry aside. Whenever you play a football team you gotta get up and you gotta get ready for it, especially on a short week.

“Last week was tough, but playing on Friday you gotta flush that (Sunday). We’re done with Marshall, we learned from the film and now we’re moving on to Middle.”

White will be one of 18 seniors honored before Friday’s 7 p.m. kickoff. It’s a senior class not used to being in the current position of dealing with a three-game losing streak and playing a November game without title implications.

After a two-year run that included 23 wins and consecutive league championships, first-year WKU coach Mike Sanford now has to figure out a way to get his team motivated for the home finale.

“This is a class that stuck together and that’s really their legacy here. They’ve won a lot. They’ve won championships, they’ve won bowl championships – they wanna go to another great bowl game,” Sanford said. “They wanna win another bowl game. That’s been the motivation. What better way than to play for bowl eligibility than against a rival that’s 100 miles away that you have some legitimate hatred for.”

Sanford experienced the WKU-MTSU game in 2010 as the program’s quarterback’s coach. The Hilltoppers had a 26-13 lead with less than 11 minutes to play in that one before a fumble at the 1 going in was returned 99 yards for a touchdown.

Middle scored again later in the fourth quarter and Western missed a game-winning field goal with 2 1/2 minutes to play in a 27-26 loss.

“A hundred miles of hate, it’s real,” Sanford said. “We’re excited for that opportunity to play in a fiercely contested rivalry game that’s been a back-and-forth affair for a lot of games.

“We wanna find a way to get out of here and have a big victory against a team that we’re pretty excited to play.”

The Hilltoppers (5-5, 3-3 Conference USA) have won three of the last five in the series and two straight. A win Friday would give them three wins in a row in the series for the first time since 1978-80.

Victory would also get the Tops bowl eligible for the seventh-straight year. The 2010 loss Sanford endured was part of a 2-10 season for WKU, the program’s last losing season to date.

Western’s final-year players, especially those who have been on The Hill the longest, have never endured a year with more losses than wins.

“You look back, especially at some of the fifth-year seniors, I think they’ve played games for, maybe (four) head coaches? Including interim head coaches?” Sanford said. “They’ve gone through a lot. It’s a testament to them that they’ve stuck together and we have as big of a senior class as we do.”

The Blue Raiders (5-5, 3-3 CUSA) have won back-to-back games to get back to .500. Victories over winless Texas El Paso and one-win Charlotte, respectively, have been fueled by the return of quarterback Brent Stockstill.

The redshirt-junior missed six games with injury before returning Nov. 4. He’s gone 31 of 61 in the passing game for 445 yards and six touchdowns.

Middle will also be salivating at the chance to get after White. The Raiders have 20 sacks and 68 tackles for loss this year with a high-blitzing, aggressive defense. The Hilltoppers have surrendered 32 sacks in 10 games.

“One (way) is to protect it, keep our quarterback clean, pitch and catch, try to get the ball out quick when we are in that situations,” WKU offensive coordinator Junior Adams said. “Utilize our tight ends, our 12 personal sets or 21 personnel sets to be able to protect and create some mismatches.”

The last six WKU-MTSU games have been decided by an average of 7.2 points – and that number is inflated by a 30-point Western win in 2015. Three of the last six have gone into multiple overtimes, including last year’s 44-43 victory by WKU thanks to Deon Yelder’s blocked extra point.

No one would be surprised if the next chapter of the rivalry came right down to the wire again.

“It’s gonna be a lot of pride on the line. This senior class has really stuck together. They’ve been through a lot,” WKU redshirt-junior defensive lineman Julien Lewis said. “I’ve got to sort of grow with them. They’ve mentored a lot of the kids growing up. It’s fun to watch them grow – it’s fun to grow with them and I know they’re all gonna leave it out there on the line.

“Everybody’s gonna do their best to help them leave with a happy mindset that they all did what they could.”

NOTES

• Western will be trying to avoid a four-game losing streak since starting the 2011 season 0-4.

• The Tops have not lost three home games in one season since 2012.

• WKU and MTSU will meet Friday for the 67th time in a series dating back to 1914. Since 2007, MTSU owns a 5-4 edge with three of those games going to overtime and six of those games being decided by five points or less.

• The Hilltoppers are 7-3 in their last 10 home finales.

• Since 2013, WKU is 14-3 in the month of November.

• WKU has had 24 players make their first career start on offense or defense this season.

• White needs 190 passing yards to pass Kawaun Jakes (7,538) for fourth on WKU’s all-time passing list.

• WKU is 34-11 in its last 45 games and 58-30 since the start of 2011.

• The Hilltoppers are 24-5 in their last 29 conference games.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop