Looking to break three-game slide, Hilltoppers host first-place FIU on Saturday

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About last week…

Western Kentucky had never lost a game like that before. There’s a high probability it will never lose a game like that again. And now, after being defeated 37-34 by Old Dominion after three un-timed downs, all it can do is go into the eighth game of the year knowing it can’t possibly feel as heartbroken as it did a week ago.

“I don’t believe in the football gods, I don’t believe in in karma, I don’t believe in being snake bit. I do believe in hard work,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “And I believe that these players continue to exude that and they deserve an outcome that they’ve worked for. I do believe that.

“And I also believe you’re supposed to go through things as team, as an individual, as a person for a reason. And this part of our story, it’s about what we do with that. What do we do with those scars? That’s been a big part of what we do this week, is to learn from those situations and apply them toward what we do this week and beyond.”

Sanford’s Hilltoppers (1-6, 0-3 Conference USA) have dropped three in a row and have now been defeated 11 times in 13 games. They need a win in the worst way, not only for their sanity’s sake but to keep the slimmest of postseason and league title hopes alive.

Should WKU lose yet again at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against visiting Florida International (5-2, 3-0 CUSA) it will see a five-year streak of going to the postseason come crashing to the ground. Coming up short Saturday would also clinch a losing season for the second straight year for the Tops, the first time that has happened since 2009-10.

“We’ve been having awesome practices. Even last week, even though we lost, I feel like we had a great week of practice,” WKU redshirt-freshman defensive end Juwuan Jones said. “This week we’ve been having a great week of practice – we finished ‘clutch’ (Wednesday) with an interception. Working on finishing, that seems to be our problem right now. So we gotta keep working on finishing and hope that translates to Saturday.”

Through eight games, Western has lost six times, and four of those losses have been by exactly three points. The last team in program history to endure such a fate was Jack Harbaugh’s 1990 squad that went 2-10 and also lost four games by three points or less.

None of that, however, helps take away the sting of a season that has gone south in a hurry for a program not too far removed from championships and top 25 rankings.

“I know that Western Kentucky was probably the premier football program in Conference USA for a period of time, (twice) they were conference champions, winning bowl games. I know that they have a very, very good fan base, they fill their stadium, a lot of people show up,” said FIU coach Butch Davis. The former University of Miami, Cleveland Browns and North Carolina coach will be making his first trip to Houchens-Smith Stadium. “They’ve recruited well, they’ve got an environment their where kids really believe that they’re gonna win. So this will be a big challenge this week.”

The Panthers have quietly gone about their business in sneaking up the East Division standings to jockey their way into first place. After a 2-2 start, which included losses to Indiana and Miami (Fla.), FIU has won three straight with an efficient passing game and staunch pass defense.

Quarterback James Morgan, a former four-star recruit who began his career at Bowling Green, is seventh nationally with a passer efficiency rating of 168.2. The redshirt-junior also ranks 14th in the country with 14.3 yards per completion – he’s thrown for almost 1,600 yards, connected on 16 touchdown passes and completed 64.7 percent of his passes.

And Morgan’s front does an impeccable job at protecting their leader by having allowed just six sacks all season. Only seven teams have surrendered fewer and two of those programs run the option.

Because FIU is able to protect its QB for so long, the opportunities for chunk plays are abound. International has nine rushes for 20 yards or more and 21 pass plays that have gone for 25 yards or more.

“You can’t let them get their explosive plays. They’re in the top 15 in college football in plays that are 20 yards or greater, or maybe it’s 30 yards or greater? But it’s in that vicinity of explosive plays,” Sanford said. “So you can’t allow them to have those plays down the field. You gotta find ways to stop ‘em.”

Western will be hoping to keep some offensive momentum going one week after scoring 34 points and rushing for more than 200 yards. Quarterback Davis Shanley, a freshman, has solidified his spot as the team’s starter at that position and running backs Josh Samuel and Gino Appleberry, also freshmen, have evolved into a 1-2 punch out of the backfield.

Getting the ground game going will once again be a key factor, especially against a suspect FIU rush defense. Only once this season has WKU totaled more than 100 yards in back-to-back contests.

“Our players, I hope, appreciate football enough – you turn the film on, you start watching these guys play, last week on offense they were electric,” Davis said of the Hilltoppers. “You go out there and score the amount of points that they did – ODU had a hard time getting them under control.

“They are balanced. They are not a team that’s just trying to beat with you with one dimension. They did a great job running the ball last weekend, they did a great job with the quarterback getting the ball to a variety of different receivers, they play multiple personnel groupings, you’ll see ‘em with three or four wide receivers, you’ll see ‘em with two tight ends – they’re a tough team to get prepared for.”

After last week’s crushing defeat, both Jones and Shanley met the media minutes after the loss and preached the same message – togetherness. It would certainly appear on the surface that Western Kentucky is at a bit of a crossroads as to whether to fight on through what has already been an ugly year or go through the motions to the bitter end.

Saturday’s penultimate home game of the year will serve as a proving ground for the Tops to once again go out and try to quiet the naysayers.

“Coach Sanford’s been pushing it down, ‘You gotta stay together, stay together, don’t let any outside noise affect the way you think on the field. You gotta go out, do your job and play,’ ” Jones said.

NOTES

• Western Kentucky and Florida International will meet Saturday for the 12th time in a series dating back to 2002. The Hilltoppers own a 6-5 edge, are 3-1 in games played in Bowling Green and 4-1 in the last five matchups.

• The Hilltoppers will wear throwback helmets Saturday.

• WKU is 54-29-3 all-time in homecoming games.

• Western Kentucky is now 7-13 under Sanford and 2-11 in its last 13 games.

• The Hilltoppers will be trying to avoid a fourth-straight home defeat for the first time since losing 18 in a row at home from Oct 11, 2008-Oct. 22, 2011.

• Western has not lost five straight conference games since starting Sun Belt Conference play 0-10 from 2009-10.

• WKU is scoring 23.6 points per game and rushing for 81.5 yards per game in the Sanford era.

• The 13 losses in the Sanford era have come by a margin of 11.7 points.

• The 2018 WKU team and 1990 WKU team each have four losses by three points or less. No team in WKU program history has lost five games in a single season by three points or less.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop