BOWLING GREEN (KT) – There’s nothing Western Kentucky would like more than playing football on the first Friday of December in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
All that stands in the way of a rematch with unbeaten and 15th-ranked Texas-San Antonio in the Conference USA title game is a win this Saturday over host Marshall.
The Hilltoppers (7-4), who have reeled off six straight conference wins since dropping a 52-46 home decision Oct. 9 to UTSA, face the Thundering Herd in a winner-take-all showdown for the C-USA East Division title in Huntington.
“Our guys have worked really hard to get to this spot and it’s just where you want to be,” said WKU coach Tyson Helton. “Last game of the regular season and you’re playing for all the marbles to see who’s going to represent the East in the conference championship.”
Since losing to UTSA, the Hilltoppers have won by at least 15 points during their six-game winning streak. UTSA has clinched the West Division title.
Marshall coach Charles Huff pointed to a number of keys to the game, including playing at a fast defensive pace to match WKU’s quick-strike attack.
“They play with tempo so we have to get lined up so we don’t give any gimmes away,” said Huff, whose team has won five of six in conference play since dropping their opener. “….He (WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe) does a really good job of moving in the pocket.
“…Our D-Line is going to have to keep him in the pocket and not out on the perimeter and have him make some of the throws that he’s made,” Huff added.
Zappe has thrown for 4,640 yards and 48 touchdowns, while completing 71.5% of his attempts this season. He’s been intercepted nine time in 533 pass attempts.
“It’s going to come down to contesting catches on the perimeter,” Huff said. “They’ve got really good receivers and they’ve got multiple really good receivers, so our DBs, our linebackers are going to have to do a really good job of attacking the ball in the air.”
Graduate senior Jerreth Sterns has a school-record and FBS-leading 123 receptions for 1,511 yards and 12 touchdowns to lead WKU receivers. Three Hilltoppers have caught 62 passes or more.
Marshall also is 7-4 overall and 5-2 in league play, one game behind WKU’s 6-1 mark. All four Thundering Herd losses have been by seven points or less.
“Marshall’s Marshall. They’re just a very good football team every year,” Helton said. “…It’s going to take everything we’ve got, but (we’re) excited for the opportunity.”
Marshall redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells has thrown for 3,357 yards and 15 TDs. He’s thrown 13 interceptions in an offense that averages 35.2 points a game.
Redshirt freshman running back Rasheen Ali has rushed for 1,167 yards and 20 TDs to lead the Marshall ground attack.
Helton said offensive line play will be a big key to the game to allow Zappe time against a fast-charging Thundering Herd defense, which has 38 sacks this season.
“They’re a very good pass rush team, and they’ve got good athletes all over the field,” Helton said. “I can’t think of one position offensively and defensively and not say, ‘Man that’s a really good player out there.’ ”