Hilltoppers to have 'pack mentality' on trip to Charlotte

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Western Kentucky’s sincere hope is that the month of October turns out to be a success – and not a scare.

In their last 14 October games the Hilltoppers have won 11 times. They need similar success over the next three weeks – in three winnable games – to go into the next month with dreams of the postseason (and even a conference title) still alive and well.

But nothing will come easy for a team that's gone 2-9 in its last 11, a team still searching to establish a dearly-missed rushing attack and a team without an established, starting quarterback.

“We gotta bring our own energy. We gotta set the tone ourselves,” WKU second-year coach Mike Sanford said about Saturday's trip to Charlotte. “That’s one thing I have really liked, for all our road games that we’ve played, I think there has been a togetherness and almost a kind of pack mentality.

"You just feel like it’s us against the world going on a trip together and it’s a pack mentality, like, ‘We’re in this thing, it’s just us, there’s nobody else, there’s nobody else supporting us.’ That’s been something I think that’s carried us through these road games early on in the season.”

Sanford will decide before kickoff whether redshirt-sophomore Steven Duncan, redshirt-freshman Davis Shanley or true freshman Kevaris Thomas will take control of the Tops’ offense. The lucky winner of that sweepstakes has to figure out a way to kick Western (1-4, 0-1 CUSA) into high gear against a Charlotte unit that’s 36th in total defense.

The 49ers (2-3, 0-1 CUSA) are coming off a bye week as well and will be well-prepared no mater who WKU throws out there behind center.

“The quarterback position, I feel good about where we’re at with those guys,” Sanford said. “Overall quarterback-wise I feel good about those guys’ ability to lead us to victory. I feel good about our plan going in and like we said earlier in the week we’re gonna kinda keep that close to the vest until we get to gameday.”

Charlotte began playing football for coach Brad Lambert in 2013 and joined Conference USA in 2015. It’s a program that’s 9-32 since the start of that year and lost 45-14 during its first trip to Bowling Green last October.

Saturday’s game, in which kickoff is slated for 2:30 p.m. CDT streamed by ESPN+, is also homecoming for UNCC.


“Homecoming is so important because I have been here since the beginning and we didn’t have homecoming,” Lambert said. “We were talking (Monday) about the first homecoming we had and we used to march down the street in front of the Student Union and I think we were playing (North Carolina Pembroke). Seeing our fans come back, and students and alumni come back, and get to celebrate homecoming is pretty cool.

“And its’ really special to us because we were here when we didn’t have homecoming, so it’s always a big day – but it’s also just the next game for us. And now, we have a lot of former players who are going to be back at the game and so that is always fun as well. We will go out there, take it a drive at a time and see if we can win the game.”

The Niners have turned to Chris Reynolds at quarterback, a freshman who has thrown six touchdowns while completing 65.2 percentage of his passes. Junior running back Benny LeMay, considered one of the better backs in the league, is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

And despite the lack of wins over the last few years for UNCC, confidence won’t be an issue for a squad that knocked off an Old Dominion team that went on to beat Virginia Tech. Charlotte also enters the fray with the nation’s 10th-best rush defense.

“In terms of what they do and the fronts that they run, if it makes you not wanna run the football? I don’t think that’s the case," Sanford said. "We gotta do what we do. I don’t think there’s any thing schematically that says you gotta go into the game and throw the ball 74 times.”

Western Kentucky will be trying to avoid its worst start to a season since 2010 when that team was 1-6 after an 0-6 start. The Tops also haven’t been 0-2 in league play since 2014 (that squad went on to win their final five games of the year after a 3-5 overall mark).

The victories this year need to start piling up for a team still very much in the conference title race while simultaneously being close to the precipice of elimination with half a season to play.

“We got a bad taste in our mouths after the (Marshall) loss, so we're ready to get back out there and try to make it right,” WKU defensive lineman Evan Sayner said. “The conference is open for anybody's taking right now.”

NOTES

• Under Sanford, WKU is 2-2 in conference road games, 3-6 in road games, 1-3 in day games and 3-1 in October.

• The Hilltoppers have allowed 20 points or less in three straight games for the first time since 2004. That team had a streak of holding four straight opponents to no more than 20 points.

• Western Kentucky and Charlotte will be meeting for just the second time and for the first time at UNCC – the Hilltoppers won last year’s game 45-14 in Bowling Green. The 49ers are in their fifth year of existence having started its program in 2013.

• Western Kentucky is 7-11 under coach Mike Sanford and the average margin of defeat in those 11 losses is 11.2 points.

• The Hilltoppers are scoring 23.5 points per game in the Mike Sanford era.

• The Hilltoppers are rushing for 76.5 yards per game in the Mike Sanford era.

• Western Kentucky has zero players from North Carolina. Charlotte redshirt-sophomore defensive lineman Nick Martin played at Dunbar High School in Lexington.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop