Tops look to buck trend of recent struggles when hosting Maine for home opener

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Mainly, Western Kentucky needs a win.

It doesn’t really matter how that win comes about (although one by a substantial margin would be better than the alternative). What matters most is the Hilltoppers (0-1) have tasted victory once in the last 322 days – and that needs to change.

“Let’s be honest – the last seven games haven’t been pretty,” WKU second-year coach Mike Sanford said Thursday. “We gotta piece together some victories and it starts with the most-important game of the year and that’s this week against Maine.”

Western (0-1) has dropped 6 of 7 dating back to last year. To avoid yet another setback it will have to keep from being caged in by not only visiting Maine (1-0) but from its own self-doubt if things were to go awry at some point after kickoff at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Sanford’s squad will also be out to prove Friday’s 34-3 loss at No. 5 Wisconsin, the first game in six years in which WKU failed to score a touchdown, will turn out to be an anomaly for 2018 and not the norm.

“This is the biggest game of the year, is what I told the team. It really is,” Sanford said. “I know we say that, it’s a coaching cliché that we say it every week, but I really do believe that where we’re at as a team and coming off the performance against Wisconsin, knowing that we could have put forth a better score, if you will – the effort was there, but the situational ball that we played was not where it needed to be.”

If anyone in Bowling Green may be thinking the University of Maine is just what the Tops need to cure what ails ‘em, think again. The Black Bears represent a proud program out of the Football Championship Subdivision and are coming off a 35-7 shellacking of a ranked New Hampshire team to start the season last week.

Maine is not a team searching for an identity or trying to rebuild its roster and it comes to Kentucky for the first time in its program history a confident bunch.

“Anytime you play an FBS school there’s gonna be certain challenges – size, strength, speed – all those things. That’s on display all over the tape,” third-year UM coach Joe Harasymiak said. “You gotta be careful watching the tape, too, because they did play Wisconsin who’s obviously the No. 4 team in the country and things can get a little skewed that way.

“We just gotta put together a good plan and have our guys truly believe that we have an opportunity to really kind of find out just where we are as a program coming off this big win.”


Western Kentucky, in game 15 under Sanford, is still looking to bust out offensively from a slump that has been stewing for some time. But a relatively productive performance last week – statistically, not on the scoreboard – at Wisconsin gives WKU some confidence of its own.

The Hilltoppers’ 124 yards rushing was their most since Sept. 16 and an impressive number given WKU has zero seniors on the offensive line. And quarterback Drew Eckels, making his first career start, was 15 of 26 for 167 yards while rushing for 38.

A 1-for-4 mark in the red zone and 5 of 16 line on third downs contributed greatly to the Tops’ demise. Western also gave carries to five different running backs – they combined for just 58 yards rushing.

“I wanna get those running backs into series rhythms, so each back will go out there and play for a series,” Sanford said. “We wanna run the football. And we have five backs that are capable of doing it, but we wanna see some separation, too. So they’re gonna have an opportunity to separate themselves.”

Western Kentucky has not lost its home opener since 2011 when Navy stormed its way to a 40-14 victory at Houchens-Smith Stadium. That was also the last year WKU was 0-2.

“We need our fan base to get out here and support these players. There’s a lot of really, really exciting, talented young players that a lot of our fan base doesn’t know yet,” Sanford said. “We wanna put forth a great performance on that field and carry some momentum with our fan base as we go through this journey together in 2018.”

NOTES

• Western Kentucky and Florida State are the only two teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision who have yet to score a touchdown. State is coached by former WKU coach and quarterback Willie Taggart.

• In its last 14 games, WKU is averaging just 65.7 rushing yards per game.

• Western has not recorded a rushing touchdown since Nov. 4 at Vanderbilt. 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 nine games WKU has just four total 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 12.3 points in their last three games.

• Western Kentucky is 17-3 in its last 20 home openers with losses to Navy, Indiana and South Florida in that stretch. The program is 74-20-5 all-time in its first home game of the season.

• The Hilltoppers, Texas San Antonio and Fresno State are the only three FBS teams who began the year with five new position starters on the offensive line.

• Maine has two wins in its history against teams from the FBS, a 9-7 win at Mississippi State in 2004 and a 24-14 win at Massachusetts in 2013.

• The Black Bears have not only never faced WKU before but have also never played a game in the state of Kentucky.

• Maine will be wearing No. 39 decals on its helmets to honor 18-year-old Darius Minor who died July 24 during a preseason workout.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop