If ever there were a time for the Hilltoppers to, “get right,” Saturday is that time.
Western Kentucky has lost 6 of 7 dating back to last year and is desperate for an evening of celebration instead of demoralization. And the last thing the 2018 team wants to do is let down all the folks at Houchens-Smith Stadium who will be showing up to enjoy a Cage the Elephant concert at 4:30 p.m. and a possible WKU win soon after.
As icing on the cake, Western is also recognizing members of the program’s all-century team all day Saturday as part of a year-long remembrance of 100 seasons of WKU football.
“Cage the Elephant. Student Section completely fired-up ready to go. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the atmosphere that we expect at The Houch,” second-year WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “Our players and our coaching staff and myself, we love our fan base and we love the support that they give us and the energy that they provide for us."
In some ways, the Tops can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief looking forward to the rest of the season. Friday’s loss at No. 4 Wisconsin was the last time they’ll likely face a ranked opponent this season, and while no one in red and white is walking around bragging about a 34-3 loss, there is a sense of a moral victory of sorts in the way the team’s offense moved the ball and the way the team’s defense held its own more often than not.
Still, a loss is a loss, and WKU has tasted victory just once since last October.
“This group of players we’re coaching right now? Love these kids," Sanford said. "These players, they’re focused on the right things. They’re focused on the preparation. They’re focused on getting better every week. They’re not dwelling on the negatives. They’re finding ways to get better every day and dwell on the positives and how we can improve as a football program.”
As for Maine, well, its challenges pale in comparison to most college football teams around the land.
Darius Minor, 18, was a defensive back for Maine when he died July 24 in Orono during a preseason workout. The Locust Grove, Va., native's cause of death was from a heart condition. He had overcome a high school knee injury to earn a Division I football scholarship.
Minor’s family attended Maine’s home opener Saturday as the Black Bears (1-0) stunned No. 9 New Hampshire 35-7, breaking an eight-game losing streak to their rivals.
“This isn’t a team that is limping in here,” Sanford said. “They’re coming in here with a lot of confidence.”
Western Kentucky will be trying Saturday to avoid its first 0-2 start since 2011. It’s also looking to snap a 14-game streak without a rush of at least 20 yards.
“I think we gained some confidence with how we matched up physically with Wisconsin, but make no mistake about it, we got beat by 31 points, and that’s nowhere near our standards," Sanford said. "And we wanna get that taste out of our mouths with a great performance and a great victory. We have to play well to beat Maine. We know that. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. We have to bring our best when our best is needed and that’s gonna be this Saturday at 6:30 at The Houch.”
• Western Kentucky is 17-3 in its last 20 home openers with losses to Navy, Indiana and South Florida in that stretch. The program is 74-20-5 all-time in its first home game of the season.
• The Hilltoppers, Texas San Antonio and Fresno State are the only three FBS teams who began the year with five new position starters on the offensive line.
• Saturday’s game against No. 4 Wisconsin was the first since Sept. 8, 2012 in which WKU failed to score a touchdown (35-0 loss at Alabama).
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop