Ward returns for finale to help bolster WKU's defense against Georgia State

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Western Kentucky hopes depth, experience and health helps carry its defense to a win in the Cure Bowl. And that defense will get a big boost by the presence of senior Marcus Ward on Saturday,

Ward, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound safety, will return from an Oct. 20 knee injury to play in his final game as a Hilltopper. His career has spanned five years and 43 games, but his leadership on and off the field has been vital to WKU’s growth as a program.

The Birmingham, Ala., native graduated from WKU in 2016 and chose to return for one final season rather than enter the workforce.

“I told you guys a lot of times the main reason I came back was for my teammates,” he said Tuesday. “So one last time to go out there and just play with those guys. Looking to get another ‘W,’ another bowl win is gonna be fun.

“It’s definitely been kind of a rollercoaster, but it’s been one that I went through in my head before I even came back. It was one of those things where I had a lot of stuff going for me outside of football, but I came back for reasons that were important to me. My teammates were important and football’s been a big part of my life. I just wanted to keep that up. It’s been a good ride all and all and we’re looking forward to capping it off with another win.”

The recently-engaged Ward played in just seven games this season after coming off an ACL tear in 2016. He was in a backup role behind Devon Key after starting for much of his career between 2013-15.

Ward has 143 tackles under his belt at WKU.

“I talked to (Ward) right after we got this bowl selection,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said, “and I just said, ‘Hey, let’s finish this thing on a high note. I wanna see you out there. I wanna see No. 8 out there and doing whatever you can to help this team with the leadership that you’ve provided over your time here and this year. It’s only a fitting way to go out with you actually out on that field doing some things for us.’ ”

Ward’s physical and emotional lift will help a WKU defense against a Georgia State offense that has struggled for much of the season.

The Panthers have scored just 19.7 points per game and rank 116th in rushing offense. And when GSU (6-5) gets to the red zone, it only scores points 63.6 percent of the time.

Still, quarterback Conner Manning, a Utah graduate transfer, has thrown for 2,870 yards and 13 touchdowns and sophomore wide receiver Penny Hart has 1,094 receiving yards and eight TD receptions. Senior running back Glenn Smith averages 3.5 yards per carry.

“Their offense, they have playmakers, they really do,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “They have some guys where they make sure they get the ball in their hands. They get their touches. Those guys do a really good job – very creative in how they get their playmakers the ball."

Georgia State’s best offensive game of the year came Oct. 14 during a trip to ULM when it exploded for 47 points, 446 yards passing and 224 yards on the ground. But that outing was one of just two in which GSU went over the 30-point mark.

The Panthers have also been held to 10 points or less in five games – all losses – and 21 points or fewer in seven contests. If Ward and the WKU defense can hold State to a similar total at 1:30 p.m. CST Saturday it stands a good chance of coming away with a fourth straight bowl ring.

“I’ve been packing to go home and I put all my bowl rings on my hand the other night,” Ward said. “I know that’s really lame to even say that – but I did. And I was thinking just getting another one would just be so cool.

“Other than the hardware and everything, just to get another team win and keep this legacy up we’ve been having on here these last few years just winning bowl games and stuff, that’s definitely one of the fun parts about college football is these postseason games.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop