Title (re)match: Tops host Dogs with Conference USA championship on the line

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It is awfully rare in the realm of college football: A rematch game.

The Conference USA championship game, at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN inside Houchens-Smith Stadium, will pit Western Kentucky against Louisiana Tech. The latter won the year’s first meeting 55-52, a regular-season matchup two months ago in Ruston, La. The former hasn’t lost since, reeling off six straight wins.

The sequel gives the home team a chance to capture a title while enacting some revenge.

“It’s good for us, since we lost to ‘em, to come back and get a chance to play ‘em,” WKU coach Jeff Brohm said. “There’s nothing better than playing for a championship and La Tech has a lot of history and tradition, so they know how to get that done. We’ve gotta find a way to step up and somehow, someway get a win.”

The Hilltoppers (9-3) could create some history of their own Saturday. They’ve never put together back-to-back 10-win seasons in their 97-year history and haven’t won consecutive conference championships since the 1970 and 71 seasons.

They put themselves in that position by forming one of the league’s best defenses to go along with the always-explosive Brohm offense and an incredibly dangerous special teams unit. But playing flawlessly in those three phases against Louisiana Tech (8-4) is a different challenge altogether.

The Bulldogs, despite losing their season finale at Southern Mississippi, have been a thorn in WKU’s side. They rolled to a 59-10 win in 2014, kept pace in a 41-38 loss in Bowling Green in 2015 and then won again earlier this season.

Skip Holtz’s team can keep pace offensively with WKU while causing problems on the defensive end against an opponent not often slowed down.

“Every team sets that goal when you start out the beginning of the season. There’s two teams left with that opportunity and 60 minutes of game time is what’s gonna separate who’s gonna be the champion or not,” said Holtz, the last coach to win back-to-back Conference USA titles – he did so at East Carolina in 2008-09. “Certainly honored to have the opportunity to represent the West. Really proud of what these players have been able to get done on the field to put us in this situation. Really excited abut playing in our second Conference USA championship.”

Tech comes into the contest scoring 44 points per game and leading the league in passing offense (348 yards per game). Quarterback Ryan Higgins and receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor will test the Western Kentucky defense like it hasn’t been tested since, well, Oct. 6 in the first meeting between the two teams.

The Tops’ defense, conversely, has risen to one of the best units in Conference USA. No one is better at defending the run and WKU is only allowing 22.4 points per game – and just 12.2 per game over the last five.

And it must also be noted that WKU starting linebacker T.J. McCollum did not play in the first match, and that the team’s defense was still adjusting to the loss of senior safety Marcus Ward due to injury.

“I’m very excited, especially as a defense, to redeem ourselves for what we’ve been through with ‘em,” McCollum said. “They got a couple solid players on their team, they like to spread the field, they try to make you tired, then run the ball on you.

“If we just read our keys we’ll come out with the win.”

As for Western’s offense, that unit hasn’t been stopped by any team not named Alabama in 2016. The Tops are scoring 51.5 points per game during the current six-game winning streak and 50.9 in eight league games this season.

The Bulldogs’ defense allows 272.2 passing yards per game, but defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (15 1/2 tackles for loss and 14 1/2 sacks, safety Xavier Woods (five interceptions) and linebacker Jordan Harris are more than capable of making a game-changing play.

“We had La Tech earlier in the year and we know how good they are,” WKU quarterback Mike White said. “We know what we need to do both on offense and defense and special teams. When you have that conference championship trophy in our stadium? And you’re playing for it? You don’t need any extra motivation.”

Western Kentucky hosted the 2015 championship game, winning 45-28 over USM in front of 16,823 fans. The program is 13-1 in the months of November and December since Brohm took over and 3-0 in December.

The Tops have also won 12 straight games at home against conference opponents – the longest active steak in the nation.

"There’s nothing like championship atmosphere. If it’s anything like last year, this place was rocking," White said. "Our fans did a great job. We hope they’re gonna be out there again because it’ll be a huge advantage. I know they’ll come out and be loud and it’ll be rowdy and it’ll be a good atmosphere for us.”

NOTES

• Dave Pasch, Tom Luginbill and Quint Kessenich will be on the ESPN broadcast call of Saturday’s game.

• The Hilltoppers will be trying to become the first team to repeat as Conference USA champions since 2008-09 when East Carolina accomplished that feat. Those teams were coached by Skip Holtz – now the coach of Louisiana Tech.

• The Hilltoppers have won 11 conference titles in program history.

• Western Kentucky has won its last four games by a combined total of 206-37

• Western Kentucky is 27-6 in its last 33 games and 20-2 in its last 22 conference games.

• Brohm is 29-10 in 39 games at WKU and 20-5 against Conference USA. E.A. Diddle, Carl Anderson, Jack Clayton, Nick Denes, Jimmy Feix, Jack Harbaugh and David Elson all won at least 30 games for Western Kentucky.

• Brohm is 16-2 in home games and the Tops are averaging 50.2 points per game in those contests. The 16 victories are by an average margin of 27.3 points.

• WKU’s six-game winning streak now tied for the fifth longest current winning streak in the FBS.

• Western’s 12-game conference home winning streak is the longest such active streak in the nation. WKU won 15 straight league home games in the Ohio Valley Conference from 1973-1977.

• WKU has not lost to the same team twice in one season since falling to Eastern Kentucky twice in 1987.

• White has the third-most passing yards (3,606) in a single WKU season. Brandon Doughty is second at 4,830.

• Wales is seventh in program history with 2,888 rushing yards. Dickie Moore is seventh with 3,560. Wales is also fourth in program history with 36 career rushing touchdowns, needing two to pass Clarence Jackson (37).

• Redshirt-junior Kylen Towner is second in WKU history with 2,236 career kickoff return yards. Joey Stockton is first with 2,302.

• WKU senior receiver Taywan Taylor is 23rd in NCAA history with 3,896 career receiving yards and 18th with 38 career receiving touchdowns.

• Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky have played six times since dating back to 1939. The Bulldogs have won four of those meetings.

• Brohm will receive a $50,000 bonus for a win Saturday.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop