Western Kentucky at Louisville 091220

Western Kentucky quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome (right) hands the ball off to running back Gaej Walker on Sept. 12 at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.

Gaej Walker burst onto the scene at Western Kentucky last year as the team’s signature running back after making the transition from the defensive side of the ball.

This season, the same level of production hasn’t been there for the entire group of backs.

The Hilltoppers have just 206 yards rushing from their running backs through four games, and offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis says getting the group going starts with giving them opportunities and executing them.

“Giving those guys some opportunities to go make plays, and when it’s their turn, they’ve got to deliver and they’ve got to go make plays,” Ellis said Tuesday.

The Hilltoppers (1-3 overall, 1-1 Conference USA) have run the ball 61 times so far this season with a group of running backs that consists of Walker, Jakairi Moses, CJ Jones, Noah Whittington and Malik Staples. It’s an average of 15.3 carries per game, and the group is averaging just 51.5 yards rushing per game.

It’s significantly fewer than WKU got last year, when the Hilltoppers had 341 yards on 80 carries from their backs through four games – an average of 85.25 yards and 20 carries per game. That stretch included tough running games statistically against Louisville and UAB.

Walker has carried the ball 28 times this year, and had the only two rushing attempts from WKU running backs in the first half in Saturday’s 38-14 loss to Marshall. The Hilltoppers trailed 28-0 after two quarters.

He finished with 5 yards on three carries. Entering the game, he had 68 yards on the season. It matched his total after his first carry last season, when he scored on a 68-yard run in a season-opening loss against Central Arkansas. He finished that game with 152 yards, and after four games, had 312 yards on 72 carries. It included a game at FIU where he carried the ball 27 times – just one fewer than has through four games this season.

“You look at where they are carry-wise – it’s a lot lower,” Ellis said. “We’re having to do some different things to try to give ourselves a chance to win a football game. Give them a little bit more opportunities, let them get rolling. The thing about Gaej was he got so many carries last year, he wore teams down and there in the fourth quarter he was able to go do some things. We haven’t been able to do that so far.”

Walker still leads the group of running backs statistically, but Moses has seen more action since sparking a fourth-quarter scoring drive at Middle Tennessee on Oct. 3 in WKU’s only win of the season. Moses has 66 yards on 12 carries.

Part of it comes with having a dual-threat quarterback in Tyrrell Pigrome. He leads the team with 225 yards on 54 rushing attempts, but the Maryland graduate transfer struggled Saturday against Maryland. The offense had just 91 yards when he was taken out in the third quarter and replaced by Kevaris Thomas, who led two second-half scoring drives. Thomas also had a team-high 30 yards rushing on seven attempts.

WKU’s offense ranks 10th of the 12 C-USA teams to play this season in scoring offense (19.8 points per game) and 12th in total offense (289.9 yards per game.) The scoring offense is 67th of the 76 FBS teams in the nation that have played this season, and the total offense is 73rd. The Hilltoppers rank 12th in C-USA and 68th nationally in rushing offense with 110 yards per game.

Pigrome, who had taken care of the football in his first three games and the coaches said was making strides each week, fumbled twice in the first half Saturday, and the Hilltoppers gave up a 38-yard scoop-and-score to the Herd when a handoff from Pigrome to Moses was dropped in the third quarter.

The staff has not said who is starting at quarterback Saturday at UAB, but Ellis said Tuesday, “Whoever runs out there first, he’ll be ready to play.”

Walker – Conference USA’s second-leading rusher last year with 241 carries and 1,208 yards rushing – isn’t the only one back with experience. The offensive line returned four starters in redshirt seniors Tyler Witt, Jordan Meredith, Seth Joest and redshirt junior Cole Spencer.

“At the end of the day, we always say the O-line will drive this team. We’re probably the most senior group on the team,” Witt said Tuesday. “As far as where we can take the team, that’s how the rest of us will follow.

“We take a lot of pressure on ourselves. Every night the O-line meets for about an hour on our own just going over game tape, we’ll watch practice early and then tomorrow we’ll have an early meeting with coach (Mike) Goff to go over the film again. We’re always trying to improve, we’re always trying to take the next step because we know that we’re the driving force of the team.”

WKU struggled to run the ball last year against the Blazers. The Hilltoppers had just 33 yards on 29 attempts, but came away with a 20-13 win thanks to an exceptional defensive performance. UAB ranks eighth in C-USA and 60th among FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing 193.5 yards per game. The Blazers rank fourth in C-USA in both scoring defense (22.2 points allowed per game) and total defense (345 yards allowed per game).

“I think I said the same thing last year – I think it’s just going to be a physical battle between us and who’s going to come be the meaner bunch,” Witt said. “Coach Goff’s been harping on us to go out there every day and be as physical as we can and physically dominate guys and that’s what we’re looking to do this weekend too.”

Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. at Legion Field in Birmingham.{&end}

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

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