Captain Farris leads the WKU defense into home opener

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This past spring Joel Iyiegbuniwe roomed with DeAndre Farris while the former prepared for the National Football League and the latter looked forward to his senior season at Western Kentucky.

At the time, Farris told the former WKU linebacker his goal for his last go-round on The Hill.

“He told me when the year began he wanted to be a captain and leader this year and I said, ‘Let’s see it,’ ” Iyiegbuniwe told WBKO.com on Wednesday. “I was back and forth from Nashville and Bowling Green this spring and anytime I came back he would tell me how he was improving and striving to reach that goal. I knew it would happen. It was just a matter of time.”

Iyiegbuniwe, getting ready to make his NFL debut Sunday when he and Chicago plays at Green Bay, was the first person Farris called when second-year coach Mike Sanford and the Hilltoppers anointed Farris a team captain for the 2018 season.

“My teammates, they’ve supported me, they’ve allowed me to take on this role,” Farris said of his captaincy. “We’re just focused on winning games, every single person on this team just trying to put their best forward to help our team be successful.

“I really put more emphasis on being myself, if that kind of makes sense. I’ve always felt like I had leadership qualities. I wanna push everyone to be the best player they can be, including myself.”

Farris, a cornerback out of Collins High School, finished with just one tackle Friday at No. 5 Wisconsin, but did record his 14th pass breakup in as many career games. There should be many more of those to come at 6:30 p.m. Saturday when Western’s team leader takes the field against visiting Maine (1-0) at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

And Farris and the WKU defense certainly won’t be short on confidence despite last week’s setback against one of the nation’s best teams. Yes, Western allowed 34 points, but it also forced a turnover and surrendered only 10 points in the second half.

The Hilltoppers also recorded three sacks after having just 12 all of last season.

“It was very important to see that. Our guys need to see that success getting in the backfield,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “As a linebacker, as defensive tackles, to get sacks that’s what you dream of as a player. It was just fun to see those guys get in the backfield on national TV and showcase their talents.

“The first thing I noticed about our guys is we believe. They fought very hard in that game. They were definitely not afraid of the moment to start that game out. They were playing physical, playing fast, made some plays early. I just loved their energy on the sidelines.”

Now WKU turns its attention to a Maine squad that went 4-6 last season and ended the year on a three-game losing streak – but (!) last week the Black Bears came out and smoked No. 7-ranked (in the Football Championship Subdivision) New Hampshire 35-7.

Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson threw for 199 yards and two scores in that win while redshirt-junior Joe Fitzpatrick and redshirt-freshman Ramon Jefferson combined to rack up 154 yards on the ground on 29 carries.

The prime enemy, however, is receiver Earnest Edwards, a junior who made four grabs for 54 yards and a score, rushed three times for 25 yards and a TD and made two kick returns for 28 yards against UNH.

“(Edwards) in particular, he’s a great athlete, he has speed to him and if you sleep he’s gonna go past you, he’s gonna make plays,” WKU nickleback Ta’Corian Darden said.

The Black Bears, under third-year coach Joe Harasymiak, get the ball to a host of playmakers but shouldn’t be considered a spread offense. Their ability to line up in multiple formations will force Western’s defense to recognize personnel pre-snap.

“We gotta be disciplined. They take shots. We can’t get discouraged if they pop a run or get a pass here,” White said. “We have to be very disciplined, we have to tackle very well. They have two really good running backs, so you gotta believe they’re gonna come in wanting to run the football No. 1. The next thing is making sure you know where (Edwards) is at.”

While Western’s defense is supposed to be a strength of this year’s team, that unit needs a positive showing to reverse recent trends. The Tops have allowed 34.7 points per game in their last seven outings and at least 27 points in their eight games.

Last week’s performance though gives Farris and his teammates hope things are about to change for the better.

“We played relentless,” he said of the Wisconsin game. “We had a lot of effort. We’ll run to the ball and we’re not afraid of nobody.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop