WKU defeats Middle Tennessee 31-26

Western Kentucky defensive back Devon Key tackles Middle Tennessee quarterback Asher O’Hara during WKU’s 31-26 win Nov. 30 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky’s defense hasn’t put up the numbers it expected through its first two games.

Coming off a 9-4 season with the best scoring defense in Conference USA, the Hilltoppers have allowed an average of 32.5 points in their 0-2 start.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White says the current bye week before opening Conference USA play against Middle Tennessee is “perfect for the Tops,” and says the focus is on getting back to who they were a season ago, adding that this week has featured what he considers some of the team’s best practices.

“I think it’s a great chance to refocus and look at ourselves and kind of get our guys back going,” White said. “We’ve had some heart-to-heart talks with players and coaches and we’re just making sure that we’re all on the same page. Our guys, they all just want to go out there and perform better.”

Of the 65 points the Hilltoppers have allowed, 45 have come in the first half. WKU has allowed 974 yards of offense through two games – an average of 487 per game, after allowing just 335.5 per game last season – and the team is working on getting back to that before its game against Middle Tennessee, which has scored just 14 points in its 0-2 start.

“Just bringing the juice back, man,” WKU defensive end DeAngelo Malone said. “Playing like how we were playing last year, man – together.”

A large portion of the struggles have come from being unable to get off the field in the first half. In the season-opening loss to Louisville, the Cardinals were 7-for-10 on third-down conversion attempts and averaged 16.9 yards on those plays, which included strikes of 63, 48, 18, 14, 14 and 8 yards for first downs. It also included a 1-yard pass that was followed by a fourth-down conversion, and a 2-yard touchdown pass on third down – one of the Cardinals’ four touchdowns on six first-half possessions.

Liberty was just 2-for-7 on third downs in the first half, but averaged 6.7 yards per play on third down. The Flames went 3-for-3 on fourth down in the first half – with the most notable set up by a 16-yard run from quarterback Malik Willis on third-and-17. Liberty had scoring opportunities on all four of its first-half possessions, with only one not amounting to adding points to the board. That was when Trae Meadows partially blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt from Alex Barbir.

Louisville finished 9-for-16 on third down and Liberty was 5-for-14.

“Third down, it’s an attitude,” White said. “You’ve got to challenge yourself, you’ve got to challenge the opponent. It takes preparation. You can’t just go out there and think that you’re going to do certain things and get off the field. It takes a lot of preparation and studying and understanding what they might do.

“It’s a lot harder when you have a mobile quarterback. We faced two mobile quarterbacks the past two weeks. We’ll face another one. ... We’ve just got to continue to understand who we’re going against, prepare very hard, put in a lot of work and practice with great intensity and mental focus.”

Louisville quarterback Micale Cunningham had a career-high 343 yards on 19-of-34 passing, with three touchdowns, and he rushed for 24 yards on 12 attempts, including a 14-yard score. Willis was 13-of-21 passing for 133 yards, and had 168 yards and three touchdowns on 21 rush attempts. The Flames finished with 354 yards rushing in the game.

“I think we’ve played two quarterbacks that were extremely athletic and so you add that into the factor that they can run and scramble and both of them are quality throwers ... but any case, we have to be able to – no matter what the situation – get off the field,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “Two games in a row we’ve had third-and-long scenarios defensively and they’ve been able to convert and convert for explosive plays. If we can stop that, that’s going to put us in a big situation.”

WKU is hoping to learn from facing the dual-threat abilities of Cunningham and Willis before traveling to Middle Tennessee, where the Hilltoppers will face another dual-threat quarterback in Asher O’Hara.

“You just learn to be more smart about your rush lanes and how you attack your pass rush,” WKU defensive tackle Ricky Barber said. “You don’t want to widen out too far. You just want to kind of stay in front of the quarterback and just keep him contained.”

O’Hara has a team-high 63 yards rushing and one touchdown on 24 attempts this season. He’s also thrown for 155 yards on 25-of-37 passing.

The redshirt junior had 2,616 yards and 20 touchdowns on 210-of-335 passing last season, as well as a team-high 1,058 yards. He was just the second quarterback in Middle Tennessee history to rush for 1,000 yards and was the third-leading rushing quarterback in the nation, behind Navy’s Malcolm Perry and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.

WKU required two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for a 31-26 win over Middle Tennessee last year at Houchens-Smith Stadium. O’Hara had 310 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-33 passing and 144 yards on 29 carries in the game.

“He’s a really tough player. He gives you everything he has. He’s very scrappy and he fits that same mold. He’s a guy that can run and throw,” Helton said. “I tell you, probably the one thing that impresses me about him is he just fights for every yard that he gets. He’s just very, very scrappy and he’s had a lot of experience.

“Again, it’s a big game and it’s the first conference game for us and it’s a rivalry game. We’ll get his best effort, that’s for sure, and we’ll get Middle Tennessee’s best effort. It gives us two weeks to prepare and try to fix the issues that we’ve had that we’ve been talking about.”{&end}

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

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