Suddenly, Western Kentucky’s postseason hopes are hanging by a thread.
With the probability of winning a third straight conference championship already dim, WKU (5-4, 3-2 Conference USA) has to figure out a way to win at least one of its next three games – all of which are against division rivals – to become bowl eligible.
“We’re 5-4 right now. We have a three-game season remaining. It’s essentially almost a playoff-type scenario,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “We need to win these games to go to a bowl game that we wanna go to. One game away from bowl eligibility, and certainly two or three wins away from securing a guaranteed bowl. And that’s what we have to go out and take care of.”
Western will head to Huntington, W. Va., this weekend looking to regain some of its mojo. It’s there that on the campus of Marshall one could argue the Hilltoppers announced their presence as a major player in Conference USA back in 2014.
They upset a then-undefeated and 24th-ranked Thundering Herd team as part of a third-straight conference win that season. They won 10 consecutive league games after that.
And Marshall (6-3, 3-2 CUSA) hasn’t beaten WKU in two tries since.
“It’s my fourth year here and every game is always high energy. I’m expecting nothing but the best from those guys,” WKU redshirt-junior running back D’Andre Ferby said. “It’s a big rivalry. The fans get more of a kick out of it than we do some times, but I’m expecting nothing but the best. Especially down there in that atmosphere, it’s always crazy.”
Both Marshall and Western were projected to compete for the East Division title this season, but neither have made good on that expectation. Florida Atlantic leads the division by two games over a pair of squads desperate for a win and trying to snap their own respective two-game losing streaks.
The Hilltoppers are still licking their wounds from a 31-17 defeat at Vanderbilt in which they could only muster -6 yards rushing.
“My challenge to this offensive line with this three-game season is be physical. Be physical. Finish. Strain,” Sanford said. “That’s what we need and that’s what we are going to be. As long as I have the opportunity to continue to lead this program, we are going to be a physical football team.
“We are going establish that. And we’re going do it through any means necessary: Through recruiting – find guys that extremely physical. Through offseason development – train harder, train longer. And then through the way we practice.”
Marshall will have an extra day to prepare for WKU’s visit. It lost 30-25 at Florida Atlantic on Friday six days after losing 41-30 at home to Florida International. Those defeats came after five straight wins – including a 38-21 win at Cincinnati.
The Herd is one of the better teams in the nation at converting third downs and stopping the opposition on third down, defending the pass and the run and holding teams from scoring in the red zone.
Marshall is also only allowing 19 points per game.
“Defensively, what you’ve seen is statistically they’ve been one of the best in Conference USA, if not the best in certain categories,” Sanford said. “It’s gonna be a great challenge for us.”
BAKER, CAIN LOST FOR THE SEASON
Sanford confirmed Monday two more season-ending injuries on his roster on what continues to be a growing list of players unavailable for the remainder of the year.
Sophomore running back Quinton Baker and linebacker-turned-defensive-end Demetrius Cain will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2017 season. Baker, from Blazer High School, is the team’s leading rusher with 233 yards in seven games this season.
Cain, a redshirt-freshman from Caldwell County High School, had played in all nine games and recorded seven tackles and a sack. He made a season-high five stops against Florida Atlantic.
“This is a terrific opportunity for guys on our team to be the next man up, but also to grow as a program,” Sanford said. “The best way to grow as a program for the future is for young guys to have to step up in critical situations.”
• The Hilltoppers have not lost three straight games since dropping three in a row from Nov. 1-17 in 2012.
• WKU last played conference road games at the same opponent in consecutive years when it traveled to Akron in both 1980 and 1981.
• WKU quarterback Mike White still 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