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Marshall running back Sheldon Evans (5) tries to push past Western Kentucky’s defense Saturday in Marshall’s 38-14 win at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky’s defense didn’t get off to a good start Saturday against Marshall.

The Thundering Herd needed just two plays and 38 seconds to go 75 yards down the field and score the game’s first points.

But after that, the offense didn’t help the Hilltoppers’ defense much. Marshall worked with short fields much of the night at Houchens-Smith Stadium, and WKU will need to put its defense in better positions Saturday against a UAB team that’s had no trouble putting points on the board when it gets into the red zone.

“The strength of our team is our defense,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Monday. “We’ll try to give them a scenario where the opposing team doesn’t have half the field to work with. Any team that has half the field to work with has a tremendous advantage. It’s a game of field position and we’ve got to be able to control the field position and take care of the football and then make our plays offensively when they come.”

Marshall’s drives, on average Saturday, started near midfield at their own 43-yard line. In comparison, WKU’s started at its own 22. The Herd’s second scoring drive started at its own 40, and its two second-quarter scoring drives started at the WKU 45 and 37.

The second and fourth scoring drives started because of WKU fumbles – the latter of which came with two minutes left in the second quarter and allowed Marshall to take a commanding 28-0 lead into halftime. The Thundering Herd also had a 38-yard scoop-and-score off a WKU fumble early in the third.

“A big problem is the turnover. If we don’t turn the ball over three times and one of those turnovers give them an easy score, we’re looking at a 20-something ball game most likely,” Helton said. “That’s always been our M.O. – hey, don’t turn the ball over and make it an easy game for the opposing team. We’ve got to get back to playing that kind of football.”

The Hilltoppers also had just 91 yards of offense by the time it got the ball for its first scoring drive with 2:22 to play in the third. Punter John Haggerty averaged 41.3 yards on six punts and didn’t have any of 50-plus yards or any that pinned Marshall inside its own 20-yard line.

“Football is obviously a team sport. As a defense our motto is to put the ball down,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said Wednesday. “That’s basically meaning where the football is put at on the football field, off the football field, on South Lawn – it does not matter – our philosophy is to line up and play.”

It’ll be especially important against a UAB team that has had success when it puts itself in positions to score. The 3-1 Blazers average 30.5 points per game – the fifth-best mark in Conference USA – and are 17-for-18 (94.4%) in red zone opportunities this season. It’s the third-highest success rate in the league – FIU is first at 100%, but has had just three attempts – and puts the Blazers in the top 15 nationally, and eighth among those that have had double-digit red zone attempts.

The key to stopping them?

“I guess keep them out of the red zone if they’re 17-of-18. Let’s not get anywhere near the red zone,” Helton joked. “I was talking to Coach White (Sunday) about this – we’ve always kind of hung our hat a little bit on it’s OK for them to get in that red zone area, but when they do, you’ve got to limit them to a field goal basically.

“That’s where we’ve got to get back to defensively, is don’t let them find the end zone. That’s one of our main goals defensively this week, is when the ball gets in the red zone, at the very worst, only give up the field goal.”

White said he believes two touchdowns and two field goals gives the Hilltoppers a chance to win, unlike the four touchdowns surrendered in the first half last week.

Of UAB’s 17 red-zone scores, 16 have been touchdowns – seven runs and nine passes – and the Blazers are 1-2 on field goals. The only time UAB hasn’t come away with points in a trip to the red zone was in its 21-13 victory over UTSA in its last game. Kicker Matt Quinn missed a field goal as time expired in the first half.

White says different options have led to that success, starting with tight ends Gerrit Prince, who has four touchdown receptions, and Hayden Pittman, who has nine receptions for 106 yards this season. White also credits receivers that can go up and get it, and a big back in Spencer Brown, who has five touchdowns rushing on the season.

“That’s like the triple-threat of red-zone offense,” White said. “We have to do a great job of our run fits and understanding where they’re trying to get to and we’ve got to force field goals when we get down there.”

WKU is sixth in C-USA and 31st nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores on 13-of-16 attempts (81.2%) of attempts. Of the 13, 11 have been touchdowns – nine rushing and two passing – and two field goals. The Hilltoppers have blocked two field goal attempts this season. Trae Meadows accounted for one against Liberty and DeAngelo Malone had one in the Hilltoppers’ lone win at Middle Tennessee.

“They like to draw people’s eyes in certain places and then go back to the other side, so we’ve got to be locked in on the little motions, the tight ends because they like to use their tight ends in the red zone,” senior safety Devon Key said Wednesday. “But coach White has said that once they get to the red zone, we’ve got a chance if we only hold them to a field goal, so that’s what we’re looking to do Saturday.”{&end}

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

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