WKU defeats Middle Tennessee 31-26

Western Kentucky defensive back Antwon Kincade (right) makes a tackle during WKU’s 31-26 win over MTSU on Nov. 30 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee’s destinies were almost set when the two met last November at Houchens-Smith Stadium – the Blue Raiders were playing their final game, while the Hilltoppers knew they would be going bowling, although they didn’t yet know where.

This year, the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry gets renewed earlier, with so much still to be decided. WKU and Middle Tennessee enter Saturday’s 4 p.m. game at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in search of their first win of the season.

“Game week this week, big rivalry week. Everybody’s excited. 100 Miles of Hate,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Monday. “I know both teams will be really excited to play. It’s always been a great game. It usually comes down to the last series or the last play. ... I know their kids will be fired up, as will ours, and I’m looking forward to a great game.”

The Hilltoppers enter off a bye week after losses to Louisville and Liberty in their first two games. WKU has struggled to slow opposing offenses, allowing 35 points off several big plays to the Cardinals and allowing the Flames to scorch them on the ground for 354 yards rushing in a 30-24 loss. The offense has shown its potential at times but is working to put the pieces of the puzzle together to put up points more consistently.

For WKU, Saturday also marks its Conference USA opener.

“I don’t think it makes or breaks your football team, win or loss, either way,” Helton said. “For us, it’s our first conference game. It’s really important from a momentum standpoint. It allows you to have some good momentum, now you’re 1-0 in conference. That’s extremely important, but at the same time it doesn’t break your season either.

“I talk about all the time you’ve got to look at the full body of work over the season – how did you finish? You just try to approach it from that mindset.”

Middle Tennessee was on the losing end of two lopsided games to open the season. The Blue Raiders fell to Army 42-0 and Troy 47-14 before losing 37-35 to UTSA on Friday in San Antonio. Middle Tennessee got down 14-3 early in its C-USA opener, battled back to take a 23-20 lead with 6:40 to play in the third and eventually fell to 0-3 while the Roadrunners moved to 3-0. Middle Tennessee is coming off a 4-8 season – its worst record since going 2-10 in 2011.

“Our team, we had a good practice yesterday,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said Monday. “We got punched in the gut, but this team – our team – continues to fight, continues to believe in each other and I have no doubt we’ll have a great week of preparation and be ready to go out there and play this game this weekend.”

Records are often thrown out the window in rivalry games, and 100 Miles of Hate has proved that. Middle Tennessee nearly knocked off the Hilltoppers last year on senior day, but WKU scored twice in the fourth quarter and won 31-26.

Helton has stressed with his team the importance of playing a full 60 minutes Saturday, and to “go win it in the last five minutes,” much like he does other games, pointing to Middle Tennessee’s ability to come back from its early deficit to UTSA as an important reason why.

Even though it’s a rivalry game, Helton said the preparation isn’t drastically different.

“Obviously you’re realistic about what the game is and the importance of the game, but I approach it the same and our staff does and it really doesn’t change your work week or those kind of things,” he said.

“You have to be able to know that it’s an emotional game. There’s going to be highs and lows and you’ve got to be able to find that balance. That plays into it a little bit. You know your guys will be really motivated, as will they, so you’ve got to be able to manage those things, so as a coach you talk to your team throughout the week about what to expect, different scenarios that could play out.”

The players are taking a similar approach to preparation, especially as both teams are still in search of its first win in a pandemic-shortened season – both teams have only 11 games scheduled, compared to the typical 12-game regular season.

“Honestly, we don’t need any extra juice. We’re playing our game,” WKU defensive tackle Ricky Barber said. “We don’t need to get any extra riled up just because they’re a rival. We bring the same energy we bring to everybody else.”

“The name of the game doesn’t change – it’s Western, we know that – but they know we’ve got to come play ball,” Middle Tennessee senior linebacker DQ Thomas said Monday when asked if he’s talked to younger players about the rivalry. “We’ve got to prepare the same as we’ve been preparing.”

Recent results show the competitiveness that comes with the game, however. In the oldest and most-played series among C-USA programs, Middle Tennessee leads WKU 35-33-1. The first game between the two came in 1914, and WKU has won four of the last five meetings.

The two have played every season except 2013 since 2007, after a break in the rivalry following the 1991 season. Eight of the 12 meetings since 2007 have been decided by five points or fewer, and four of the last eight have gone to at least double overtime, with two of those going into triple overtime.

So while attempting to treat it like any other game, there’s still the rivalry aspect for both sides.

“Man, it’s really a feeling like no other,” Thomas said. “I know the anticipation that goes into this game, what the game means to people that have been here before me, so you just try to keep that legacy going and try to go out there and play hard to get the win for the team.”

Saturday marks the earliest in the season the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry game has been played since Middle Tennessee’s 50-47 triple-overtime win Sept. 13, 2014, and the first time it has been played before November since the 2016 season.

And while both enter winless, the expectations for another competitive contest are there, with lots of football still to be played after, unlike last season.

“Every team can probably have a loss and still be in the running for a conference championship,” Helton said. “We both have a ton to play for and then you throw on top of it being a rivalry game, so I do think you should see some pretty good football out there.”{&end}

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

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