Florida International W Kentucky Football

Western Kentucky players prepare to run onto the field before a Nov. 21 game against Florida International at Houchens-Smith Stadium. The Hilltoppers won 38-21.

Western Kentucky put itself in position to be invited to its seventh bowl game in nine seasons by winning down the stretch, and the same can be said about the late-season play of its opponent in Saturday’s LendingTree Bowl game.

The Hilltoppers won their final three games of the regular season, and Georgia State, which WKU will meet at 2:30 p.m. at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., closed the regular season with wins in three of its final four games, which is part of the reason WKU head coach Tyson Helton believes Saturday will be a quality game.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities to their football team and our football team. That’s why I think it’s such a great matchup. ... I think we’re very comparable,” Helton said. “I think you’ll have two motivated teams, I think two teams that match up well. We’ve both had ample time to prepare, we should know each other in and out, so it’s really a matter of who’s going to show up to the park and play the best and want it more. Hopefully we’ll put on a good show for everybody. They’re a very, very good team and it should be a great challenge, but one we’re excited about.”

WKU (5-6) started 1-4, but is now one win away from finishing .500 after wins over Southern Miss, FIU and Charlotte to end the regular season. The Hilltoppers’ 10-6 loss at FAU the week before the winning streak began ended a chance at a winning season.

Georgia State (5-4), on the other hand, had wins over Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Georgia Southern in its last four games, with the one loss coming to Appalachian State. Its other losses included now-No. 16 Louisiana, Arkansas State and now-No. 9 Coastal Carolina. The three losses outside of a 51-0 blowout by Coastal Carolina came by a combined 14 points.

“I think they’ve played good football down the stretch,” Helton said. “They hit a couple games – one or two games there – that they didn’t play as good as they wanted to, but they had some really close losses, too. The four games that they lose, those are some pretty dang good football teams and a lot of those teams, they played them really hard.”

The Hilltoppers haven’t played since Dec. 6, but are coming off their best all-around performance of the season in the 37-19 win over the 49ers. The Hilltoppers struggled offensively for much of the season, but put up 38 and 37 points the last two games – with the help of defense and special teams as well – and hired Zach Kittley to take over offensive coordinator duties starting next season. Bryan Ellis will maintain that role for the bowl game.

“It’s been a struggle for everybody – they’re frustrated, we’re frustrated, I’m sure our fans are frustrated. We’re all frustrated,” Ellis said. “It shows the resiliency of the players that we have out there to finish the way that they have. The two wins the last two weeks, that earned them the right to go play in the bowl game. That’s kind of the gift for them to keep fighting through.

“Football is really one of the last things in life that truly teaches you about the way life really is. We had some adverse situations come our way and our kids kept fighting. As a coach, that’s all you can ask. To finish the way they did, I couldn’t be more proud of them, I couldn’t be more proud of our coaches. I wish we would have got it going a little better a little quicker, but that’s part of it.”

Ryan Aplin, the team’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach this season, has left for a position at Arkansas State, several Hilltoppers have entered the transfer portal, but still plan to play one last time, and the team recently signed several players during the early period. With all of those factors outside of the game, the Hilltoppers are trying to stay focused on Georgia State with a “normal work week,” as Helton called it. There’s no bowl festivities this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A big philosophy I’ve believed in ever since I was in high school is you’ve got to control what you can control,” WKU redshirt junior defensive end Juwuan Jones said. “You can’t worry about things that are out of your hands, like what coaches are getting hired or who’s signing, things like that. You can control your one person, your one body and do your job, work out hard, watch film and put a product on the field that you’re proud of. In essence, just control what you can control.”

Tyrrell Pigrome has thrown for 1,423 yards and nine touchdowns on 154 of 264 passing this season and hasn’t thrown an interception. WKU will also get one of its best receivers back with Dayton Wade, who has been sidelined with an injury after playing in six games. Xavier Lane is expected to miss Saturday’s game with an injury suffered against FIU. The Hilltoppers have recorded 157 and 218 yards rushing the last two games, led by Gaej Walker in both.

Georgia State allows 32.9 points per game, and the Panthers have allowed 284.1 yards passing per game, which ranks 117th of 127 FBS teams to play this season, but rank 38th in rushing defense at 140.2 yards allowed per game.

The Panthers averaged 32.7 points and 417.7 yards per game – 190.3 rushing and 227.3 passing. Cornelious Brown IV has thrown for 2,046 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions on 162 of 274 passing, with Sam Pinckney his top target. Pinckney has 753 yards and six touchdowns on 44 receptions. Destin Coates leads the ground game with 652 yards and six touchdowns on 143 attempts.

Saturday’s game will be a rematch of the 2017 Cure Bowl, which Georgia State won 27-17. While there’s not much to take from that game to help Saturday, there’s “absolutely” a revenge factor for WKU, according to redshirt junior offensive lineman Cole Spencer, who was “a little true freshman playing in that game.”

“I think any time you lose to a team, getting the opportunity to play them again and get a little payback is a great opportunity for us.”{&end}

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