Tops launch into new season with winning streaks on the line

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In football vernacular, it’s been a long time since Western Kentucky has lost a conference football game. Or a home game. Or a season-opener.

Those are the types of streaks the Hilltoppers will put on the line at 7 p.m. Thursday at Houchens-Smith Stadium against Rice.

“It’s a big stage for us,” junior linebacker Drew Davis said Monday. “Not only for the city of Bowling Green and WKU, but from last season we kinda broke on to the national stage so they’ll be a lot of eyes on us from the TV exposure and from us breaking into the Top 25.”

Western has won 12 straight games against Conference USA opponents dating back to 2014 – that’s the longest active conference winning streak in the nation. It has also won 10 straight at home – only Florida State, Clemson, Texas Christian and Air Force have longer active unbeaten runs on their home turfs.

The Hilltoppers have started 1-0 each of the last four seasons, too.

“Playing the very first night of college football when there’s not as many games going on is always great for us,” WKU coach Jeff Brohm said. “We want a chance to showcase our program, our stadium, our fans, our team in front of the entire country. The more opportunities we get to do that, hopefully the better.

“Because of that we’ve gotta be ready to play, we’ve gotta make sure we do a good job, we represent our team and our university the way it’s supposed to be and hopefully find a way to pull out a win.”

Coming off a 12-2 season, a second consecutive bowl win and third consecutive bowl trip, a league championship and appearance in the Top 25, the Tops set the benchmark for future seasons with possibly the best campaign in program history. Now the team's fan base is craving to see the encore.

But gone is quarterback Brandon Doughty. Gone is tight end Tyler Higbee. Gone are wide receivers Antwane Grant and Jared Dangerfield, linebacker Nick Holt and cornerbacks Prince Charles Iworah and Wonderful Terry.

Quarterback Mike White will be charged with leading an offense that features an outstanding offensive line, two explosive running backs and a NFL-caliber wide receiver in Taywan Taylor. The team’s defense will rely on seven first-time starters.

“We haven’t played a game in – I don’t know how long. I think I saw the other day it was over 250 days,” WKU senior left tackle Forrest Lamp said. “You never know, exactly, what the first game is gonna be like. You can probably expect some jitters from the guys who haven’t played before.

“For example, (White’s) never played a game here. We’ve got some new guys in the rotation, so I’m sure they’ll be some pregame jitters, but hopefully we can come out and push through that.”

Rice, a 16 1/2-point underdog Thursday, has 16 starters back – nine on defense – from a team that went 5-7 last year. The Owls were picked to finish third in Conference USA’s West Division.

Senior running back Darik Dillard and senior wide receivers Darrion Pollard and Zach Wright will threaten the WKU defense. Quarterback Tyler Stehling is a first-year starter (but a redshirt-senior) who threw for 150 yards against the Hilltoppers last year.

“The strength of Rice’s football team is they play hard, they’re tough and they’re smart,” Brohm said. “Those three things they pride themselves on and it’s tough to beat them at those three things. So we’re gonna have to find a way to at least try to match that.

“They’re gonna spread it out. They’ll probably throw it around quite a bit. Get the ball out of (Stehling's) hand and mix in a few spread runs. But we anticipate them being much better on offense, and our defense will have to be ready to play.”

Thursday’s contest, televised by the CBS Sports Network, will also present the rare opportunity for the Hilltoppers to play in front of a large home crowd. Despite the program’s recent success, WKU has only played in front of an average of 17,021 fans since 2011.

Eclipsing that number shouldn’t be an issue for the first game of 2016.

“We’ve seen our fan base grow with more consistency,” Lamp said. “My freshman year (in 2012) I think we sold out that game to Southern Miss, but then it when it got cold, there was barely any fans there. There was 8,000 fans. Now, last year at the conference championship game, we still had huge, huge fan support. So we appreciate and it’s been awesome seeing the program grow and I’m glad we could be a part of it.

“Hopefully we can sell out The Houch (on Thursday). We love it when it’s sold out and all the fans are there. It’s a great time.”

NOTES

• The Hilltoppers are looking to win their second consecutive conference opener for the first time since taking three straight from 2004-06. Since 1999, WKU is 7-8 in league openers. 


• The Hilltoppers are 57-33-6 all-time in season openers and have opened four consecutive seasons with a win, the longest streak since winning five openers from 1996 to 2000. Over the last 20 years, WKU is 17-3 in home openers, is 70-21-5 all-time and has won four straight.

• WKU is seeking to become just the second CUSA school to win 14 consecutive games against league opponents, tying a league-record streak set by Southern Mississippi from Oct. 19, 1998 to Nov. 4, 2000. WKU last lost to a league opponent on Nov. 1, 2014 at Louisiana Tech. 


• Western hasn’t played many games against teams from Texas. Since 2009, the Hilltoppers are 6-2 against Texas-based schools and have won six straight.

• This will be the seventh time that Rice will open the season against a defending Conference champion and the third time on the road. In the previous six games, Rice is 4-1-1.

• Western Kentucky has won six games in a row. A win Thursday would give WKU its second seven-game winning streak in the last 20 contests.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop