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Western Kentucky’s Jahcour Pearson (center) is tackled Saturday by Liberty’s Anthony Butler (left) and Cedric Stone at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky didn’t get the football season started the way it expected with a number of players returning in all phases of the game from last year’s 9-4 team.

The Hilltoppers lost the opener Sept. 12 at Louisville 35-21 and dropped their first game at Houchens-Smith Stadium to Liberty on Saturday 30-24.

WKU now has a much-needed open week to try to correct mistakes from its first two games before heading to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to face Middle Tennessee in its Conference USA opener Oct. 3.

“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said following Saturday’s loss. “It’ll be a tough week for us because you want to have momentum, but the upside is we get to start conference play and we get to do it against one of our rivals – Middle Tennessee – and I’m looking forward to that opportunity. We’ll get two weeks to prepare for them and try to come out of the bye week feeling good about what we’re doing on all phases.”

The one phase WKU can feel OK about is likely special teams. Iowa State transfer Brayden Narveson has made all six extra points and the one field goal – a 43-yarder Saturday – he’s attempted through two games. John Haggerty is averaging 47 yards on 10 punt attempts, with three traveling over 50 yards, four landing inside the 20-yard line and no touchbacks. Omari Alexander helped put the Hilltoppers’ offense in good field position twice on Louisville punt attempts, and Liberty kicker Alex Barbir had a 42-yard field goal attempt come up short after it was partially blocked by Trae Meadows.

The offense and defense needs some work, however.

WKU has given up an average of 32.5 points through its first two games, after returning nine starters on a defense that posted the best scoring average in C-USA and the 22nd-best in the nation last year.

In the loss to the Cardinals, big plays – especially in the first half – cost the Hilltoppers, but the defense settled in to allow only one score in the second half. On Saturday, Liberty recorded 487 yards, with 354 coming on the ground, and 168 of those, plus three touchdowns, coming from quarterback Malik Willis. WKU is allowing an average of 249 yards rushing now this season, and an average of 5.2 yards per rush.

“It’s definitely not up to the standard we had set for ourselves at the beginning of the season. We have a lot of seniors on defense, a lot of returning guys that know how to play ball, so it’s definitely not what we expected going into this bye week,” redshirt senior safety Devon Key, who had 14 tackles Saturday, said after the loss.

“We’ve got to work on it, we’ve got to be better, be more locked in in meetings, be more locked in in practice. We’ve just got to come together as a defense and then bring the team along.”

Offensively, WKU has shown its potential – like in its two second-half scoring drives Saturday – but for the majority of the season has struggled to find a rhythm and move the ball down the field.

Two of WKU’s three scoring drives against the Cardinals were set up within the 5-yard line by Alexander’s special teams plays, and the Hilltoppers had negative 3 yards through their first two drives against the Flames. Helton stressed leading up to the second game WKU had to play in front of the chains, and said postgame that there were again too many negative plays, while taking the blame for the offense’s struggles.

“I’m not real happy with how we’re doing offensively and that’s on me,” he said.

Helton has described Maryland graduate transfer quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome’s performance following both games as “OK.” He had 193 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-25 passing Saturday and, for the second straight week, led the team in rushing yards.

“A couple times we called some vertical shots that (Pigrome) checked it down – I’d like to see him try to put it up,” Helton said. “I’d have to look at the tape and see, but out on the field I felt like he was OK with what we were asking him to do.”

Outside of Pigrome, who has 130 yards rushing through two games on 31 attempts – which includes four sacks – WKU has struggled to run the ball.

WKU believed it had a deeper and improved running back room this fall after Gaej Walker carried almost the entire load last season, but Walker has only 53 yards on 20 carries this season. That leads a group of backs where the next highest total is 16 yards on seven carries, coming from freshman Noah Whittington.

“It starts up front with our offensive line. We’ve got to be able to handle the line of scrimmage,” Helton said. “We had a couple of negative plays there where we were running the ball laterally and probably should have ran it downhill more to help the offensive line.

“ ... I think Piggy will handle some of the running load. That’s the skill trait he has. When we do hand it to the backs, we’ve got to be able to create movement and give them an opportunity to make some runs.”

WKU did struggle early last year in Helton’s first season – the Hilltoppers lost two of their first three games, including the opener to FCS Central Arkansas – but finished the year with wins in eight of their final 10 games, including a bowl victory.

Middle Tennessee has also started the season 0-2, with a 42-0 loss at Army and a 47-14 loss to Troy in Murfreesboro. The Blue Raiders are scheduled to travel to UTSA this week before hosting the Hilltoppers.

The Oct. 3 game between WKU and Middle Tennessee is scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m.{&end}

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

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