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Western Kentucky quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome drops back to pass during WKU’s 38-14 loss to Marshall on Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Western Kentucky started the 2019 season 1-2 but finished 9-4.

The start of the 8-2 closing stretch came in a 20-13 win over then-defending Conference USA champion UAB at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The Hilltoppers have started the 2020 season slow and currently sit at 1-3. The next opponent? UAB.

Saturday’s contest at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., while coming one game later in the schedule this fall in a shortened season, again could prove to be a key turning point if WKU hopes to get back on track in its second season under head coach Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers haven’t talked about last year’s game in relation to this year, however.

“We’ve got a mature football team, so the conversations I have with them are more about the mentality and those kind of things. To me, that’s pretty much a given,” Helton said Monday during his weekly Zoom conference. “It doesn’t matter what your record is, every week you treat it like you’re undefeated and you’ve got to go out there and go win that football game. I have not talked to them about how important it is or must wins or any of those kind of things.”

One big difference this year is that WKU won’t be playing in the friendly confines of Houchens-Smith Stadium. Instead, they’ll bus roughly 260 miles south to play on a field where UAB hasn’t lost since falling to Marshall 23-18 on Nov. 22, 2014. The Blazers have won 20 straight home games – the third-longest active home winning streak in the nation – and haven’t lost there since the program returned in 2017.

When the two teams met last year, WKU had losses to FCS program Central Arkansas and Louisville, plus a win over FIU. This season, the Hilltoppers have lost to Louisville, Liberty and, most recently, Marshall – which was one of WKU’s two losses following the UAB game last year. The one 2020 win came 20-17 at Middle Tennessee on Oct. 3, and WKU has only six regular-season games scheduled after Saturday, compared to the eight it had last year.

Helton has stressed looking at the team’s body of work as a whole, instead of the results from a single game, and doesn’t like to call games “must win.”

“But it’s an important game,” he acknowledged. “We’ve still got a long way to go in our season. We’ve got a lot of goals to attain. We want to try to win a championship. No matter how good your football team is, the main goal every year is to win a championship – it doesn’t matter how good or how bad, that’s the goal that you’re always trying to attain. If that doesn’t come possible, then you’re trying to get your next goals.

“But there’s a lot to play for this football team. It is still very early in the season. We’ve just got to find our groove and get rolling. I felt like when we played Middle Tennessee, we started to find it a little bit, and we’ve got to get back on that and find it again.”

Last year’s game was the first with Ty Storey at quarterback. The Arkansas grad transfer replaced Steven Duncan, who sustained a season-ending injury in WKU’s loss to Louisville the game prior. The Hilltoppers didn’t put up massive numbers offensively in last year’s meeting with UAB – Storey had 189 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-24 passing and the team rushed for just 33 yards – but were exceptional defensively to come away with a 20-13 win.

Like last year, there’s potential for a change at quarterback in WKU’s offense.

Tyrrell Pigrome, who was named the starter in camp, had improved through his first three weeks for an offense that has struggled early this season, but he took a step back in Saturday’s 38-14 loss to Marshall. He was 12-of-21 for 61 yards and had seven carries for 28 yards, but fumbled twice. WKU also fumbled when he tried to hand the ball off to Jakairi Moses in the third quarter, and Marshall’s Tavante Beckett returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.

WKU’s offense had just 91 yards when Pigrome was pulled midway through the third quarter. Through four games, WKU ranks 10th of the 12 Conference USA teams to play a game this season in scoring offense (19.8 points per game), and 12th in total offense (289.8). The scoring offense is ranked 67th of the 76 FBS teams in the nation to have played a game, and the total offense is 73rd.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kevaris Thomas entered in the third quarter and threw for 148 yards on 9-of-18 passing. It included a 51-yard pass to Xavier Lane – the Hilltoppers’ longest play this season – and a 26-yard strike to Dalvin Smith in the end zone with six seconds left. He also ran seven times for a team-high 30 yards, which included a 2-yard touchdown.

Helton did not say Monday who would start at quarterback at UAB. Last season, Storey was the presumed starter in place of Duncan, but Helton didn’t publicly announce the decision – the quarterback introduction was even removed from WKU’s pregame starting lineup video on the scoreboard. Storey said he learned he’d be the starter the Friday before the game after a walk-through practice.

“We’ll continue to rep our guys. I want to get into practice and all those kind of things, so I’m not really going to comment on that,” Helton said. “It’s early in the week. We’ve got a lot of game planning to do and those kind of things, but we’ll see.”

While the results were heavily in Marshall’s favor Saturday, Helton was pleased with the way his team fought to the end and, because of that, believes corrections can be made.

WKU’s next opportunity to make them comes when it kicks off at UAB – the team it started its strong closing in 2019 with a win against – on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

“It was a bad night at the park and nothing was going right, we looked awful on offense, but the guys were always battling, fighting and competing,” Helton said. “So long as you’re doing that, you can fix the other problems.”{&end}

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

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