College football: WKU falls to Central Arkansas 35-28

Western Kentucky defensive lineman Jalen Madden (top) tackles Central Arkansas running back Kierre Crossley on Aug. 29 during WKU’s 35-28 loss at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky’s practices looked a little different this week. Tyson Helton said his team had a glint in their eyes and a different demeanor in preparation for the first Conference USA matchup of the year.

That alone should be enough to set the tone, but there’s an especially bad taste left from last Thursday’s loss to FCS Central Arkansas. WKU is looking for its first win and so is Florida International, which lost by four touchdowns to Tulane in its opener.

“They’re just like us,” Helton said after WKU’s last practice before flying to Miami. “They’ve got something to prove. Two teams that are mad and trying to get a win. … We’ll see when we get out there on the field but as far as the week goes, I love the process of what the guys did.”

The Hilltoppers (0-1) can quickly reset the mojo of Helton’s attempt at turning around the program with a win Saturday. Kickoff against FIU (0-1) is set for 6 p.m. CDT with the game streaming on ESPN+ from Riccardo Silva Stadium in Coral Gables, Fla.

A win would even up WKU’s record and start the C-USA slate on a winning note in just the second game of the season. Helton has been even-keeled all week in his response to his first game as WKU’s head coach coming against an FCS team whom the school paid $325,000 to play.

WKU held a two-score lead going into the fourth quarter before Central Arkansas scored 21 unanswered points to win. Helton’s mission is to return WKU to the championship caliber team it was when he was previously at the school as offensive coordinator. But WKU opened its home schedule with a loss to an FCS team for the second straight year, and a loss to the Panthers on Saturday would give WKU an 0-2 start for the second year in a row.

“They respond how our coaches respond,” Helton said. “We’ve been really positive. We talked the next day after the game and said it’s OK to be down and depressed (Friday) but we’ll watch film, get corrections made and move on. Sun comes up and I think we’ve had a great positive demeanor.”

FIU’s home opener comes after the Panthers allowed Tulane to rush for 350 yards last Saturday. WKU’s Gaej Walker enjoyed a breakout in his debut with 152 rushing yards since converting from the defensive back position in the spring. It’ll be Walker and KeShawn McClendon who take most of the snaps at running back, Helton said.

The Daily News also learned Friday that WKU will be without running back Jakairi Moses, who suffered a knee injury at the end of the Central Arkansas game. Sources told the Daily News he could be out for the season with a possible ACL tear. Moses was key in WKU’s passing game last Thursday with three receptions for 51 yards out of the backfield.

FIU middle linebacker Sage Lewis highlights the Panthers defense as the C-USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

“Every game takes on its own dynamic, but we’ll take what they give us,” Helton said. “If it’s in the run game, we’ll try to take it. If it’s in the pass game, we’ll try to take it. We definitely need to run the football well to go win the football game.”

Defensively, WKU controlled the line of scrimmage and held UCA to 0.7 yards per rush, but the Bears picked on the secondary with 404 passing yards. Panthers quarterback James Morgan was the C-USA Newcomer of the Year in 2018 by throwing for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Cornerback Trae Meadows said WKU’s lack of discipline in the second half has been the major emphasis of correction prepping for the Panthers.

“Just come out and play how we played last week,” Meadows said. “Don’t change anything. We have to sharpen our tools and become more focused and I think we’ll have a good chance to win the game.”

NOTES

Tyson Helton is 0-1 as WKU’s head coach. … Butch Davis is 17-10 in his third season as FIU’s head coach and 80-53 for his career. … The Panthers’ 38-17 win last season at Houchens-Smith Stadium was their second straight over the Hilltoppers. … The series between the two schools is tied 6-6. Davis and WKU athletics director Todd Stewart worked together for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 2002 when Davis was the head coach and Stewart the executive director of communications.

Western Kentucky (0-1) at Florida International (0-1)

6 p.m. CDT, Riccardo Silva Stadium, ESPN+

Position-by-position breakdown:

Quarterback: Steven Duncan had the best game of his Hilltopper career against Central Arkansas, but the offense couldn’t finish drives in the fourth quarter. James Morgan had a breakout season for FIU last year with a single-season record for touchdowns (26) and 2,727 passing yards.

ADVANTAGE: FIU

Running back: Gaej Walker shined in his debut behind a solid offensive line performance for over 150 yards. The defensive back convert looks to carry most of the load for WKU. FIU as a team ran for 75 yards against Tulane last week.

ADVANTAGE: WKU

Wide receivers: Austin Maloney and Maurice Alexander highlight the Panthers’ perimeter after combining for over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 TDs a year ago. Jahcour Pearson had his breakout last week with seven receptions for WKU.

ADVANTAGE: FIU

Offensive line: WKU flexed its experience and depth at the position by controlling the line of scrimmage vs. UCA. FIU pushed for 2.3 yards per rushing attempt against Tulane.

ADVANTAGE: WKU

Defensive line: Defensive ends Deangelo Malone and Juwuan Jones helped WKU control the line and force UCA to abandon the run, holding them to less than a yard per rushing attempt. FIU allowed 350 rushing yards last week.

ADVANTAGE: WKU

Linebackers: Kyle Bailey led a rotation of five new linebackers last week for the Toppers. Panthers MLB Sage Lewis led Conference USA in tackles last year and is the C-USA Pre-season Defensive Player of the Year

ADVANTAGE: FIU

Secondary: WKU was torched last week as Central Arkansas averaged 19 yards per completion. Stan Thomas-Oliver III had a monster game last year against WKU with an interception, four pass breakups and six tackles.

ADVANTAGE: FIU

Special Teams: John Haggerty was exceptional flipping the field in his punting debut, averaging 51.5 yards on two punts. Freshman Cory Munson was 4-for-4 on extra points, but missed his only field goal attempt. Jose Borregales has been a C-USA honorable mention the last two seasons.

ADVANTAGE: FIU{&end}

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

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Covering the Western Kentucky University athletics beat for the Bowling Green Daily News.

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