Monarchs, Tops fighting to stay out of Conference USA East basement

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When Western Kentucky and Old Dominion began to get together annually in 2014 the matchup usually held serious implications in the standings. The two programs have usually been in the thick of Conference USA’s East Division race each year.

Not so much in 2018.

When the 1-6 Monarchs take the field at 6:30 p.m. Saturday inside Houchens-Smith Stadium they’ll meet the 1-5 Hilltoppers. There aren’t too many more games across the landscape of college that features two teams with more dismal records squaring off against one another.

“Old Dominion’s talented – they are extremely talented and also extremely hungry for a win. So are we,” WKU second-year coach Mike Sanford said. “It’s two teams that are coming out here with a lot of talent. Two different teams from two different situations, but ultimately two teams that are wanting to scrap it out and leave this game on Saturday night with a victory. We gotta leave it out here, every bit of us, out here on this field.”

Both ODU (0-4 in Conference USA) and WKU (0-2 CUSA) are virtually scratched from the possibility of making the postseason. Both are also virtually extinct from the conference title race.

Instead each team – expected to challenge Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and Marshall for the division crown – has watched their respective seasons go off he rails in equally wondrous and wild ways.

Old Dominion began the year with consecutive losses to Liberty, Florida International and the same Charlotte team that busted WKU in the mouth last week. The Monarchs were left for dead – then pulled off an upset heard around the nation when No. 10 waltzed into Norfolk, Va., and was handed a 49-35 loss.

Coach Bobby Wilder’s unit hasn’t won since while allowing 43.6 points per game in defeats to East Carolina, FAU and Marshall.

Western also started out 0-3 and then appeared to turn its corner Sept. 22 at Ball State during a 28-20 victory. Sanford’s team hasn’t won since either.

“Our focus right now is on Old Dominion and fixing a couple of critical things that I feel like we need to fix. I feel like we’re in every football game,” Wilder said earlier this week. “We get this (last) game to 28-20 in the fourth quarter (against Marshall) and we have a couple of things that we don’t finish on offense or a couple of tackles, we let something out on defense.

“Our players know we’re just a play or two away from a different outcome. That will be the focus this week as we prepare ourselves to go play Western Kentucky.”

The Hilltoppers and Monarchs are traditionally involved in a shootout, but that shouldn’t be the expectation this time around. Part of that is due to Sanford indicating he may have to rotate his four quarterbacks throughout Saturday’s game as the hot hand becomes apparent through four quarters.

Senior Drew Eckels, sophomore Steven Duncan and freshmen Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas have all yet to lift the team’s offense consistently off the ground.

“We’re gonna go with whatever we feel like gives us the best chance to win,” Sanford said. “We have Drew Eckels, is back and healthy, he’s getting close to being full-go. Duncan’s healthy. Shanley’s healthy. Kevaris is healthy. So for the first time, really, since Week Two, this is the first time we’ve had all four guys ready to go.

“So whatever it takes to get this win at the quarterback position we’re gonna do. I think the guys have bought into that. That’s not an easy thing to do at this position, but this year hasn’t been a very conventional year at the position either. We’ve kind of tried a multitude of things in terms of establishing a set starter, naming a starter early in the week. We’ve done the opposite where we’ve kept it close to the vest. In all reality, whatever it takes to get a victory, we’re gonna do at the quarterback position. We owe that to this team – and at the position we gotta play great football.”

Regardless of who’s is under center the Western offense will have to account for Oshane Ximines, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end who has racked up 12 tackles for loss, 8 1/2 sacks and eight quarterback hurries through seven games. He’s projected to be as high as a second-round draft pick.

The WKU defense, conversely, will be greatly challenged by a trio of crafty wide receivers, two solid running backs and a junior quarterback in Blake LaRussa that are all capable of denting the scoreboard time and time again Saturday.

That’s not a good recipe for a Tops defense that just allowed 40 points to Charlotte.

“The main thing, you gotta point to your seniors,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. ”I got Dre Farris, Evan Sayner, Masai Whyte, Julian Lewis, Der’Quione Mobley and Drell Greene as well. Those guys basically said it (Sunday), ‘You guys, we gotta come out and play better. The team’s depending on us.’

“Understanding the situation that we’re in, 1-5, obviously there’s six games left, we just wanna take it one week at a time. We just gotta play better. We gotta perform better on Saturdays. Obviously our standards are very high, they’ve always been very high, and our players know that Saturday was not the type of effort we wanna put out. We’ll try our best not to do that again.”

Saturday’s contest also marks the start of the second half of the season for Western Kentucky. The Tops need one of the better turnarounds in program history to not only make a fifth straight bowl game but avoid second straight losing year.

Time is running out for Sanford’s squad to prove not all is lost in 2018.

“We need to defend this home turf,” the coach said. “This is something that our seniors take very seriously, it’s something we take very seriously. We gotta play our best football of the season.”

NOTES

• Western Kentucky is 7-12 under Sanford and 2-10 in its last 12.

• The Hilltoppers are trying to avoid a third-straight home defeat for the first time since 2012.

• WKU is a 5-point favorite over Old Dominion. The Tops are 0-2 against the spread as favorites this season and 1-9 against the spread as favorites under Sanford.

• Old Dominion and WKU will be meeting for the fifth time since 2014. Western has won all four previous matchups by an average margin of 19.5 points.

• The Hilltoppers are scoring 23.1 points per game in the Sanford era.

• The Hilltoppers are rushing for 74.7 yards per game in the Sanford era.

• WKU’s 107 points through six games is its fewest since the 2009 team had just 91 points after six games that season.

• The Hilltoppers will be looking to avoid a 1-6 record for the first time since 2010.

• Saturday’s game is the 1,000th in program history for Western Kentucky.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop