The latest edition of Western-Marshall will have a different feel about it come 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
For four straight seasons two teams separated by about 280 miles have played each other in November in games usually accompanied with heavy impact on Conference USA’s race for an East Division title. From 2014-16 the Hilltoppers won every time on the season’s final weekend. They ruined Marshall’s undefeated season in ’14, then clinched division titles each of the following years.
Last November in Huntington, W. Va., the Thundering Herd finally snapped the losing streak by building a 30-7 lead and holding on for a seven-point win (although neither team had put themselves in position for a championship in that one).
The fifth meeting between the Hilltoppers (1-3) and Marshall (2-1) now holds a weight of a different kind. No trophies will be handed out afterward, no bowl bids or conference title game berths are at stake, just bragging rights in the league opener for both teams trying to catapult their respective seasons in the right direction.
“This (rivalry) just makes so much sense because it is another border state, we do recruit similar kids in the state of Florida and Georgia, we recruit obviously across West Virginia and Kentucky," Sanford said. "And I think also the history of the 2014 game. That game greatly impacted me (at Boise State).
"That day, as a former coaching alum if you will of Western Kentucky, that was as proud as I've ever been to be a Hilltopper. That game, really, I think was the exclamation point to the beginning of this rivalry."
Sanford, who went 4-4 against Conference USA opponents in his first season last year, is trying to guide his team to its first winning streak since Sept. 23-Oct. 20 of last year. Western is 2-8 since that run but can build some serious momentum and belief with an upset of the Herd on Saturday.
A 28-20 win at Ball State last week broke a five-game skid and sent positive vibes coursing through camp this week at The Houch. After playing 3 of 4 to start the year Sanford’s team is thankful to be back home where it can somewhat make amends for a Week 2 loss to Maine.
“Just coming off the win just feels so much better the week after and during practice and stuff like that,” WKU safety Devon Key said. “So we just gotta keep the same energy going through every single week of the season.”
Both teams also have offensive issues to sort out Saturday, although some appear more harrowing than others.
Western has played four quarterbacks this season and started three. Redshirt-sophomore Steven Duncan is in line to get the nod Saturday, Sanford said, but redshirt-freshman Davis Shanley – who started Week 4 at Ball State and came off the bench in Week 2 at Louisville to ignite his offensive teammates – has shown his ability to lead an emerging WKU attack.
Meanwhile, the Tops have averaged 104 yards rushing the last two weeks behind a reinvigorated offensive front. That doesn’t sound like much, but is leaps and bounds above the 63.8 rushing per game they averaged before that.
“They don’t change a whole lot with what they do,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said about the WKU offense. “The package has expanded a lot with (WKU starting quarterback Drew) Eckels in there because he is a senior and has played. However, if you look at them on tape they aren’t a whole lot different with anyone they play. They are going to have some quarterback runs in there and all three of them have the ability to do that.”
Marshall, with new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey, returned running backs Keion Davis and Tyler King, but has struggled to find solid footing with redshirt-freshman quarterback Isaiah Green. Green has thrown for 820 yards and completed six touchdowns with an array of offensive weapons at his disposal – the Herd’s ground game has averaged just 71.5 yards the last two outings against Eastern Kentucky and North Carolina State, respectively.
It should be noted, however, that MU has failed to reach 28 points against Western only once since 2014, the 60-6 blowout in 2016.
“They got too many weapons offensively – (wide receiver Tyre) Brady, King, Davis, these are all guys that are explosive with their legs, explosive catching the ball vertically through the air and then explosive with their arm talent with Green,” Sanford said. “We have to be at our best, we have to be fresh, we have to play fast and we cannot allow them to make the big plays that have really kind of been their springboard offensively."
In an odd twist of CUSA scheduling, Marshall’s trip to Bowling Green this week will mark just the second time the Thundering Herd has visited WKU since the renewal of the rivalry in 2014. It will also only be the fourth time the green and white has ever been to The Hill having last triumphed in 1950.
Leaving town with a victory this time could prove crucial to the start of the title hunt in league play.
“I think everything gets magnified on the road. It is important that we go on the road and play well,” Holliday said. “I know our fans will travel well. I mentioned earlier that I am sure we will have as many fans as NC State brought (to Huntington), probably more. Everywhere we go our fans follow and that will help us.”
• Western Kentucky and Marshall will play Saturday for the 10th time in a series dating back to 1941 and for the fifth year in a row. The Hilltoppers trail the rivalry 5-4 but are 3-1 in the last four.
• Saturday’s game between WKU and MU will be the second-earliest matchup the two programs have met. the 1996 game was played Sept. 28.
• The Tops are 2-2 in Conference USA openers and 8-9 in league openers since 1999.
• WKU is the only team in the nation to have started three different players at quarterback.
• Western will be trying to avoid a 1-4 start for the first time since 2011.
• The Hilltoppers also broke a five-game road losing streak with their win Saturday.
• Western snapped an 11-game streak Saturday of having at least one turnover.
• Marshall is 35-3 in its last 38 games under Holliday in which it scores at least 30 points and 33-3 in its last 36 under Holliday when rushing for at least 150 yards.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop