Hilltoppers finish nonconference play with trip to Ball State

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Nonconference play has not been kind to Western Kentucky. No whe Hilltoppers (0-3) have one last shot this week to get right before entering an eight-game stretch against Conference USA competition.

Saturday’s trip to Ball State, a 2 p.m. CDT scheduled kickoff, is a golden opportunity for WKU to break a five-game losing streak. The Cardinals have gone 10-29 the last 3+ seasons with just six wins over FBS teams.

Western won the 2017 matchup 33-21 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“I talked to the team a little bit about the worst possible outcome for a true competitor is a loss. Obviously that’s what we endured (Saturday at Louisville),” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “But we look forward to an opportunity to put a great football game together for four quarters and finish strong against a team that’s playing good football.”

Davis Shanley, a redshirt-freshman, will make his first career start for WKU with senior Drew Eckels still shelved by injury. Redshirt-sophomore Steven Duncan will be Shanley’s backup followed by true freshman Kevaris Thomas.

Shanley threw for 240 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score after coming off the bench in the 20-17 loss at U of L. He’s in line to become the program’s first freshman to start a game at that position since Todd Porter started against Morgan State on Sept. 21, 2013.

“The one thing I liked about him is when I watched the film I saw a guy that played within the system,” Sanford said of Shanley. “You watch his progressions, his feet, his timing, you can tell that this is a system he’s learned, right? This is a system he’s been trained in.”

Western will get a Ball State team that gave up 38 points at Indiana last week – although it did hold No. 8 Notre Dame to 24 the week prior. The Cardinals are allowing 5.9 yards per play to its two FBS opponents this season.

The Hilltoppers needed a Jakairi Moses 5-yard touchdown run with 1:38 to play and a Joe Brown pick-6 just 25 seconds later to top BSU last year.

There’s a good chance WKU will require similar type plays this week in the fourth quarter to finally secure that first victory of the year.

“When I look back I think about the fight that we’ve shown in all three games that we’ve played this year. The resolve that we’ve shown Our players are warriors and our players are winners,” Sanford said. “It’s our job to get them to experience and taste that feeling of victory in the postgame. And that’s what we’re all working toward. We have a unified front in wanting to get to that point and get to that point sooner rather than later.”

NOTES

• Western Kentucky and Ball State will meet Saturday for the fifth time and just the second time in Muncie, Ind. The two teams have split the previous four matchups and the Tops lost 35-12 their last visit to BSU in 2007.

• Western is on a five-game losing streak and has not lost six straight since the end of 2010 to the start of 2011.

• The average margin of defeat for WKU during its current five-game losing streak is 14.2 points.

• The Hilltoppers will try to avoid an 0-4 start this week for the first time since 2011. Other teams in program history which have started 0-4 include: 2010, 2009, 1984 and 1983.

• The last WKU team to go winless against nonconference opponents was the 2011 team.

• Under Sanford, Western has totaled 1,125 yards rushing – an average of 70.3 yards per game.

• A Western running back has not reached the end zone since Oct. 28 when D’Andre Ferby scored from 11 yards out with 6:52 left in the second quarter against Florida Atlantic.

• In its last 11 games WKU has a total of five rushing touchdowns.

• Anthony Wales was the last player for WKU to record a rush of at least 20 yards when he totaled 32 on a third-quarter run against Memphis in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 20, 2016.

• The Hilltoppers have averaged just 17 points in their last four games.

• Through three games WKU has blown double-digit leads in two of those contests. The 2014 team (8-5) gave up double-digit leads four times (17-7 to Illinois, 24-14 against Middle Tennessee, 27-14 against Alabama Birmingham and 31-14 to Florida Atlantic).

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop