When the sun begins to set Saturday in southeastern Louisiana, the Western Kentucky football team will walk into Tiger Stadium looking to do what no one from outside the Southeastern Conference has done in 15 years: Win.
The Hilltoppers (6-1) are undoubtedly underdogs going up against mighty Louisiana State, the No. 5-ranked team in the country, a team with national title aspirations. But this isn’t the same WKU squad from four years ago – the last time the two programs met.
This WKU team has clout. Has momentum. Has belief.
“The message is to have fun and play loose. Our guys have had a good year to this point, now it’s kind of an opportunity to play, probably a game that’s bigger than any bowl game you could actually play in against this type of opponent,” WKU coach Jeff Brohm said Thursday. “(LSU is) extremely good every year, but even this year they’re even better – and in that environment of 100-plus thousand on Saturday night, that’s what you dream about as a kid. Our guys need to go down there, relax, cut it loose, let it all hang out, we’ll see where the chips fall.”
The Tops have won four straight since a three-point loss at Indiana on Sept. 19. Quarterback Brandon Doughty continues to orchestrate one of the nation’s best offenses that scores 44 points and racks up 535.4 yards per game.
But going against an historically nasty defense, there are questions as to whether Doughty & Co. can continue to their mesmerizing offensive play – especially with tight end Tyler Higbee and running back Leon Allen out with injuries. Western Kentucky has decided not to focus on any of that, but instead to approach the matchup with an air of calm confidence.
“We’re not gonna be able to win this game if we’re all tight,” Doughty said. “I think we were a little tight in the last (Vanderbilt) game (a 14-12 win in the season-opener) – I think offensively we were tight. And we can’t have that this upcoming game. This team is too good.
“We just gotta go out there and really work our butt off and try to shock the world.”
Doughty and his crew may be able to score points, but can the WKU defense stop Leonard Fournette? A 6-foot-1, 230-pound battering ram of a sophomore running back, Fournette leads the FBS in rushing yards (1,202) and rushing touchdowns (14) behind an offensive line full of professional prospects.
The Tigers (6-0) put their offense on the shoulders of Fournette while asking sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris to manage a methodical attack.
“This is the type of offense we like to play,” WKU linebacker Nick Holt said. “Not all the trick plays with five wide receivers and all those bubble screens. They line up and run the ball and that’s classic football and that’s what’s fun to play as a defense. It is gonna be fun.”
Between the lines, the matchup appears simple: LSU wants to stop Doughty and WKU wants to stop Fournette. Outside the lines, the game has significant, yet drastically different, meanings for each program.
An LSU win allows the Tigers to sail into a bye week before a mega showdown at Alabama on Nov. 7. A loss? State would likely have to kiss its college football playoff hopes goodbye.
“We feel like they’re a very big, very talented team,” LSU coach Les Miles said of WKU this week. “We need to be prepared. Our guys have taken to their practice like they should. This is a team that can move the football on offense, has a great quarterback in Doughty and a talented receiving corps, a nice-sized back that can run, a good offensive line.
“They have a defense with a great scheme. We recognize that they can play defense and have earned their 6-1 in a very strong way.”
A victory for the visitors would vault WKU into the nation’s Top 25, make the Hilltoppers a dark horse to play in a bowl game on New Year’s Day, and arguably be the biggest win in program history. But a loss? A loss does nothing to derail the Tops’ chances at a Conference USA title.
And with six wins already in the bag, WKU is bowl eligible and nearly assured a postseason game with four contests left on the schedule after Saturday.
“We can’t get too over-hyped, because when it comes down to it, it’s a nonconference game, so we can’t put too much on this,” Holt said. “We have to keep our head right, realize it’s a nonconference game – because our ultimate goal is to win conference.”
Western Kentucky will receive $975,000 for agreeing to play Saturday’s game. The program was paid $900,000 in 2011 – a game it lost 42-9.
The Hilltoppers are 17-point underdogs – but that number is down from the 41 1/2 points they were expected to lose by in 2011. Perhaps this is the team, then, that will be the ones to do the unthinkable, to walk out of Death Valley with that elusive ‘W.’
“You can’t ask for a better opportunity in life,” WKU senior cornerback Wonderful Terry said. “This is a great opportunity for us to go down, play in front of all these people, and just go out and have fun.”
• Doughty has thrown for at least 300 yards in 16 of the past 20 games. LSU has allowed only two 300-yard passers in its last 32 – once to Dak Prescott of Mississippi State and once to Bo Wallace of Mississippi.
• Doughty has completed 832 career passes. LSU as a team has completed 788 passes since the start of the 2011 season.
• LSU has not allowed more than 400 yards of total offense this season and allowed more than 400 yards just three times last year.
• WKU has six wins against teams that are a combined 13-26.
• LSU has six wins against teams that are a combined 22-18.
• WKU is 5-5 on the road under Brohm.
• Western Kentucky is 2-18-1 all-time in front of crowds of more than 40,000 fans.
• Doughty has thrown a touchdown pass in 21 straight games.
• In 24 WKU wins, quarterback Brandon Doughty is 555-for-770 for 7,090 yards, 67 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
• Doughty is tied for 42nd (with Chad Henne, Troy Kopp, Tim Lester and Luke McCown) in NCAA history with 87 career TD passes and is five scoring throws away from moving into the top 30.
• Doughty is 73rd in NCAA history with 10,509 passing yards and is 366 yards from moving into the top 60.
• Wide receiver Taywan Taylor is tied for fourth on WKU’s all-time list for career touchdown receptions with 17, and Jared Dangerfield is fifth with 15. Eddie Preston holds the record with 22.
• Taylor is ninth on WKU’s all-time list for receiving yards with 1,862.
• Kicker Garrett Schwettman has made 87 consecutive extra points, chasing the WKU record of 119 set by Chris James. Schwettman is also now tied for the third-most field goals made in a WKU career with 47.
• Western Kentucky has a turnover margin of +20 in Brohm’s 14 career wins and -2 in his six defeats.
• WKU’s quartet of WRs (Taylor, Nicholas Norris, Antwne Grant and Dangerfield) have more receiving yards combined (2,032) than 111 FBS teams have passing yards.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop