Marshall defeats WKU 20-17

Western Kentucky quarterback Steven Duncan throws a pass against Marshall on Sept. 29 at Houchens-Smith Stadium. Duncan is expected to start Thursday’s season opener against visiting Central Arkansas.

Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton knows winning is the first step to restoring confidence in a program and its fan base. That’s why the Hilltoppers expect a win when it pays Central Arkansas to visit Houchens-Smith Stadium on Thursday night.

But WKU’s program isn’t in a state where FCS-level opponents become automatic victories – the Hilltoppers learned that last season.

The Helton era begins with a Central Arkansas team that has held its own against the FBS.

“We expect to win this football game, but with that being said we’re playing a pretty dang good opponent,” Helton said Monday during his weekly news conference. “In the opener last year, they go to Tulsa and really had a great opportunity to win the game. I look at their football team, both offensively and defensively, it will be a great challenge for us.”

UCA has just two wins in 14 tries against FBS opponents, one being the Hilltoppers. The Bears defeated Arkansas State in 2016 and in 2009 came to Bowling Green and manhandled WKU in a 28-7 win. It was the Hilltoppers’ first FBS season that produced an 0-12 record.

WKU’s only loss to an FCS school since 2011 was to Maine in the home opener last year. The Hilltoppers led 21-0 after one quarter and lost 31-28.

The Bears are the first of four nonconference opponents on WKU’s schedule and the only FCS team. UCA will receive $325,000 for the trip to Bowling Green. Kickoff on Thursday night is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., with the game streaming on ESPN+.

“We have to play good football and if we do that then hopefully we’ll come out with a W,” Helton said. “But this is a good opponent that we’re about to play and it will be a good test for our football team.”

Preparations for Central Arkansas started in the spring. Helton said the team also visited the game plan during summer player-run-practices and the last two weeks have been dedicated entirely to prep for the Bears.

Helton named redshirt junior Steven Duncan as the Hilltoppers’ starting quarterback to lead an offense that returns all but one starter from 2018. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound signal caller played in nine games last season and wants to improve on WKU’s 21.1 points per game average from a year ago.

“I just try to go out there and be a leader for my guys and try to get them riled up, ready to go and move the ball down the field and do what they tell me to do,” Duncan said. “How we come out, it would be great to come out to start the season with a win.”

Duncan will have returning receivers Lucky Jackson and Quin Jernighan and tight end Kyle Fourtenbary up against a UCA secondary that returns four of its five starters from 2018. Bears cornerback Robert Rouchell had four interceptions last season and Helton said it’s a group that’s good at making quarterbacks throw in tight windows.

“They’re not afraid to walk up on top of any receiving corps and press them and say you’re going to have to make a play,” Helton said. “Sometimes you play a team that tries to keep everything underneath them. This bunch says, ‘get open.’ I like their style. They’re not going to make it easy on the quarterback.”

UCA’s offense will lean on sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith, but has depth with another sophomore in Luke Hales. Smith broke his ankle in the Bears’ fourth game and Hales took over to throw for 1,857 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Bears also return four starting offensive linemen and a backfield duo of Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley, who combined for 1,386 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

UCA is picked to finish second in the Southland Conference preseason poll after going 6-5 overall last year and 5-4 in league play. A trip to Hawaii on Sept. 21 rounds out the Bear’s FBS schedule.

Central Arkansas at Western Kentucky

6:30 p.m., Houchens-Smith Stadium, Thursday

Online: ESPN+

Radio: Hilltopper IMG Sports Network: 100.7 FM, 1450 AM

Position-by-position

Quarterback: Steven Duncan won the starting quarterback job in fall camp, but Arkansas transfer Ty Storey could work his way into the mix. Duncan played nine games for WKU last year. Luke Hales played most of last season for UCA, but Breylin Smith is back from injury and projects to start. ADVANTAGE: WKU

Running back: Four WKU backs will rotate between Joshua Samuel, Jakairi Moses, Keshawn McClendon and Gaej Walker. UCA has a running back duo that rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 11 TDs last year. ADVANTAGE: UCA

Wide receivers: Lucky Jackson and Quin Jernighan lead a receiving corps expected to return the offensive fireworks Helton promises. UCA has an all-new unit after losing four of its top five receivers from 2018. ADVANTAGE: WKU

Offensive Line: The Tops are one of two FBS programs to return every single starter on the offensive line from a year ago. Right tackle Miles Pate is on the All-Conference Preseason Team. UCA returns four starters on its line. ADVANTAGE: WKU

Defensive Line: Deangelo Malone and Juwuan Jones have been praised all season for anchoring the ends on WKU’s dominant line. Jaylon George is a veteran at defensive tackle. UCA had an All-Southland Conference defensive end dismissed from the team prior to camp. ADVANTAGE: WKU

LINEBACKERS: WKU’s top tacklers from 2018 were linebackers no longer with the program. Kyle Bailey has stood out in his move from safety to linebacker the Tops added two transfers from Louisville and Georgia to bolster that group. ADVANTAGE: WKU

SECONDARY: The Bears return four of their five starters from last year and placed two DBs on the All-SLC preseason team in Robert Rochell and Jackie Harvell. Devon Key and Ta’Corian Darden have moved from cornerback to safety and nickel position players. Trae Meadows adds size at cornerback for WKU. ADVANTAGE: UCA

SPECIAL TEAMS: Freshman Cory Munson will kick while Alex Rinella sits out two games. Australian punter John Haggerty will make his WKU debut as well. UCA kicker Hayden Ray has experience. ADVANTAGE: UCA

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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