210925-sports-Hoosiers football at WKU_outbound 15.jpg

Western Kentucky wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley gains yards after a reception against visiting Indiana during the Hilltoppers’ 33-31 loss Sept. 25 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky is now done with a challenging nonconference schedule, but its start of conference play likely won’t be any easier.

The Hilltoppers are preparing to open Conference USA play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium against unbeaten UTSA.

“It wouldn’t matter if we’re 4-0 right now – the reality is we’re 1-3 – but none of that matters right now when you enter conference play,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Monday at his weekly news conference. “We’re looking at trying to be 1-0 in conference play. That’s all we’re trying to do right now.

“I said after the game I really like where our locker room is right now. I think everybody is realistic on, ‘OK, you’re 1-3, but you have an opportunity in conference to be a good football team and go get a big win against UTSA.’

I don’t see anybody thinking anything other than, ‘Let’s go get this first win in conference play.’ ”

The Hilltoppers are coming off a 48-31 loss to No. 17 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday. It was the team’s third straight loss – WKU’s only win this season came against FCS UT Martin in the opener, 59-21 – but the Hilltoppers’ nonconference schedule was a gauntlet.

WKU was unable to complete a comeback at Army on Sept. 11 and fell 38-35, and again got off to a slow start at home after a bye week against an Indiana team that entered the year ranked No. 17 in the country and fell 33-31.

Despite the record, WKU is realistic about where it’s at and with how it has played in those games.

“We embrace the tough schedule,” Helton said. “I was more than happy to play the teams we played. The ball bounces our way here or there, we very easily could be sitting here at 4-0. I don’t want to have an easy schedule in the early part of the season and now you’re getting into the tough conference play.

“The name of the game is trying to make a run and win your conference and that’s the most important thing for us. I think our team is very realistic about where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are, and if we’re going to go make a conference run we’re going to have to do all the right things to make that happen. We’re just trying to be 1-0 right now in conference play. That’s the No. 1 goal for us right now.”

Much of the optimism comes from the performances from WKU’s revamped offense led by new coordinator Zach Kittley and quarterback Bailey Zappe. The Hilltoppers are tied for 12th nationally in scoring at 39 points per game and rank ninth in total offense at 520.5 yards per game. Of that, 441.5 yards per game come through the air – the top mark in the country, with the next-best being Virginia’s 398 yards passing per game.

Zappe leads the nation with 428 passing yards per game, and fellow Houston Baptist transfer Jerreth Sterns leads the country with his 10 receptions and 136.5 yards per game.

“I think it’s big, especially going into conference,” Zappe said after Saturday’s game. “When you play good teams like that, it kind of helps you out going into conference. You’re able to dial in – especially on offense – we’re able to start dialing in some stuff, finding out what our mistakes are and start fixing them before we get into where the season really matters and conference and everything.”

The challenge has been overcoming slow starts. The defense has struggled to get off the field in the first half and WKU has gotten in 14-0 holes early during its three-game losing streak. The Hilltoppers have outscored Army in the second half 21-17, Indiana in the second half 17-10 and Michigan State in the second half 15-6.

“We’re competing, we’re trying hard, we’re doing some good things, but you look back at a lot of these games and we’re down 14-0,” Helton said. “If we can start fast and then play how we’ve been playing a lot of times second half and play as a whole team, then that’s going to give us a good chance to win the football game. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. If we can get off to a good start as a team as a whole, then that’s going to help us down the stretch.”

If WKU can do that, it feels confident it can make some noise in C-USA. The Hilltoppers finished third behind Marshall and Florida Atlantic in the East Division the last two seasons – their highest finish since claiming league titles in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016. WKU was picked to finish third in the East in the preseason poll.

UTSA is the only remaining unbeaten team in C-USA with its 5-0 overall and 1-0 C-USA records. WKU is the only team in C-USA to have not played a fellow league school yet this season. The Hilltoppers will follow Saturday’s meeting with the Roadrunners with seven straight C-USA games against Old Dominion (1-4 overall, 0-1 C-USA), FIU (1-4, 0-1), Charlotte (3-2, 1-0), Middle Tennessee (2-3, 1-2), Rice (2-3, 1-0), FAU (3-2, 1-0) and Marshall (2-3, 0-1).

“Any week somebody can win, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Power Five or Group of Five. Every conference I’ve ever been in, once you hit conference play, it’s like everybody’s the same,” Helton said. “Every week in Conference USA, you have no idea what’s going to happen. I look at Charlotte beats Middle Tennessee at home, UTSA gets after Middle Tennessee, Middle Tennessee – because they’ve got a great staff and I know Coach Stock (Rick Stockstill), he keeps them fighting – next thing you know they go and beat Marshall. That’s Conference USA to a tee right there.

“Really, once you get into conference play, you know you have to be consistent and you’ve got to make sure from week to week you realize everybody’s about the same and who plays the best football is going to win the game.”{&end}

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