NCAA Football: Western Kentucky 30-14 over Charlotte

Western Kentucky quarterback Ty Storey (center) tries to evade Charlotte linebacker Markees Watts (right) and defensive back Lance McMillan (bottom) as WKU offensive lineman Cole Spencer looks to protect Oct. 19 during WKU’s 30-14 win at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky has defeated SEC teams in the past.

Factoring in three wins against college football’s most dominant conference since 2012 and the current state of Saturday’s opponent can provide the Hilltoppers a vote of confidence that isn’t new.

“Embrace it,” WKU defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin said. “You’re here for a reason and we’re all here on football scholarship for a reason, so don’t let the conference or the stadium overwhelm you. Just keep your nerves in check and play ball.”

With hopes of a Conference USA title game appearance now a long shot, WKU (5-4) takes on its new quest of securing bowl eligibility starting with an 11 a.m. CST kickoff at Arkansas (2-7). WKU will collect a $1.5 million check for its first trip to Fayetteville, Ark., that is part of a package series with Arkansas that includes home-and-home games in men’s basketball.

“Anytime you play an SEC opponent at home, it’ll be very challenging for us, but our guys are excited to be on that platform to be able to compete at the highest level,” Helton said. “Looking forward to an exciting game.”

The Hilltoppers are 3-21 all time against the SEC with two wins coming against Kentucky in 2012 and 2013 and Vanderbilt in 2015. WKU came close to a win over Vanderbilt at Houchens-Smith Stadium in 2016 but lost in overtime. Saturday will be the last SEC team WKU faces until a 2022 matchup at Auburn.

Arkansas’ conference affiliation draws attention on its own, but the Razorbacks are playing far off the pace of the rest of the league.

In two years under Chad Morris, the Razorbacks have yet to win a conference game and sit 4-17 in his tenure. Their only two wins this year include a 20-13 home win over FCS Portland State and a 55-34 victory over Colorado State in Week 3. The Razorbacks have since lost six straight in the grueling SEC West that includes College Football Playoff contenders Alabama and LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn.

Morris has rotated through four quarterbacks while playing a young group of wide receivers and recently dismissed from the program tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, who was the team’s leading receiver through the first seven games.

The Razorbacks rank near the bottom of the SEC in total offense at 22.7 points and 355 yards per game. They rank last defensively at 35.2 points allowed per game.

“They’ve played some really good offensive football teams in that league,” Helton said. “SEC is tough. They’ve had some explosive plays hit against them. We’ll have to play our best game for sure on all three phases to have an opportunity to win. I do think if we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Saturday’s biggest storyline is the return of WKU quarterback Ty Storey to his home state. The former four-star prospect out of Charleston chose Arkansas and former coach Bret Bielema over scholarship offers from Alabama and Louisville. He was with the program for four seasons and started nine games last year as a redshirt junior.

He transferred to WKU in the winter and took over the starting job in Week 3, going 4-0 to start and now has the Toppers within one game of bowl eligibility a year after the team won three games.

While Storey acknowledges how unique Saturday will be for him individually, he knows the opportunity at hand for his current team.

“We have to get a win,” Storey said. “These last two weeks have been rough on us and we’ve been in every game fighting to the end and it just hasn’t come our way. We just have to keep grinding and find any way we can.”

Arkansas will start redshirt freshman quarterback John Stephens Jones, the grandson of Arkansas alum and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Morris said this week that redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson will also see time against WKU.

The Hilltoppers will have their hands full against the SEC’s third-leading rusher in Rakeem Boyd. Defensively, the Hogs are led by linebacker De’Jon Harris with 75 tackles a year after leading the SEC in stops.

Saturday will be the last home game this year at DWR Razorbacks Stadium with a road trip to LSU looming and a matchup with Missouri taking place in Little Rock to close the year.

Helton said he likes playing the SEC teams late in the season due to the normal grind of the year or potentially overlooked opponents, even if Arkansas is in a different situation than his previous experiences.

“I remember playing LSU when I was here before,” Helton said. “LSU had a big game coming up and I don’t want to say we were an afterthought, but you might not get that team’s best game sometimes. I think Arkansas is in a different situation.

“They’re a young team, a growing team and every game is extremely important. Sometimes if you play an early SEC game, they’re a healthy team and there’s a lot of things that aren’t going to go your way. I’d rather get them late in the season. I think that gives you the best chance.”{&end}

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

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