Southern Miss at WKU 101420.JPG

Western Kentucky defensive tackle Ricky Barber (left) sacks Southern Miss quarterback Trey Lowe III during the Hilltoppers’ win over the Golden Eagles on Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky’s defense was the highlight of Saturday’s 10-7 win against Southern Miss, and all eyes were on redshirt senior safety Devon Key and senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone as each took possession of program FBS-era career records.

But while there was reflection on the last four years from those two, Hilltopper fans got a glimpse of a player who could be the program’s next in a line of successful defenders.

Redshirt freshman Ricky Barber played one of the best games of his young career, posting five tackles and two sacks to help lead WKU to the victory.

“The intensity I tried to bring coming off the ball, I just kept telling myself, ‘Just keep running, keep running,’ until I made the play,” Barber said after the game.

The 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle recorded his first sack of the game on the Golden Eagles’ first possession of the second half, going free to Trey Lowe III for a 5-yard loss. On the very next Southern Miss possession, he got to Lowe again, swinging him down for an 8-yard loss on third down.

WKU finished with six sacks in the game – Malone accounted for two, while Kyle Bailey and Juwuan Jones had one each – and the Hilltoppers brought down Southern Miss players for losses nine times. The Golden Eagles had just 221 yards in the game, including 67 passing.

“I love Ricky to death. He’s a great man, great person, great leader for this football team,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said after the win. “He takes a lot of pride in his job, and it was great to see the impact he had tonight. Huge plays – sacks and TFLs. He was just all over the field.

“Really, our whole defense was. It was the same as last week. When everybody had an opportunity to make the play, they made the play, and that was really awesome to see. Proud of him and the whole defense.”

Barber appeared in four games last year and redshirted. The three-star prospect out of Doss High School recorded seven tackles and a sack, and has started all nine games this year with the departure of Jaylon George from last year’s 9-4 team.

He’s now at 38 tackles and three sacks on the season – he recorded 0.5 in back-to-back games against Liberty and Middle Tennessee – and he forced a fumble during the loss to the Flames. Barber had a career-high nine tackles against Liberty, and had eight in WKU’s loss to Marshall. After WKU’s 10-7 loss at FAU on Nov. 7, Barber was named to the PFF National Team of the Week with an 89.4 defensive grade.

“My progression, it’s just being the young guy and kind of watching everybody in front of me – how they practice, how they perform, how they get ready, the mental approach they take to the game – from watching Jaylin George last year to Jeremy Darvin this year,” Barber said. “I’m just constantly watching and learning and I try to mimic what they do, and try to do it better.”

Saturday was a record-breaking day for Key and Malone. Key became the program’s FBS-era leader in career tackles, surpassing Andrew Jackson’s mark of 326. Key finished with six tackles in the game and now has 329 with two games left this season. Malone became the program’s FBS-era leader in sacks, moving one ahead of Quanterus Smith’s mark of 24.

“Ricky Barber, he’s a young stud,” Malone said after the game. “He’s the type of guy that’s going to get it done, and he’s going to always progress.”

Malone says he tries to show Barber and the other younger players the right way to prepare and play, and Malone’s example is something Barber attempts to imitate as he tries to become one of the next WKU record setters in the coming years.

“(Key and Malone are) big-time playmakers, big leaders on the team. This is their team right now. Me being a young guy, I’m just learning from them and I’m just doing my part to make just as many plays as they make consistently, even in practice,” Barber said.

“Just watching how they carry themselves, you can tell they’re the difference in the room. Every time they walk into the room, you can tell that they’re different than everybody else. I just want to be like them one day.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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