Video by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
Photo by Gregory French / Sidelines Archives
On Oct. 10, 2015, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders left Bowling Green, Kentucky as victims of an embarrassing 58-28 loss to rival Western Kentucky. Former Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty dominated the Blue Raider defense by throwing five touchdowns in the first half, essentially ending the game before it even started.
One year later, MTSU (4-1, 2-0) has a chance at redemption in the biggest game of the year when they host WKU (3-2, 1-0) on Saturday at Floyd Stadium.
Knowing they will need to pressure new quarterback Mike White, the defensive line is ready to introduce themselves to the Hilltopper backfield.
“I feel like last year they got us with a lot of trick stuff, a lot of stuff that showed if we were disciplined,” Senior defensive end Chris Hale said of Western’s offense. “This year, we are really focusing on reading our keys and staying on our assignments. If they try to do the trick plays, [we] just do the little things coach tells us to do and that’s about it.”
The defensive line, led by Hale, Shaq Huff and Steven Rhodes, are coming off a phenomenal performance against North Texas, allowing only five net rushing yards in a 30-13 win. They also created problems for the Mean Green offensive line, leading to four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
The game didn’t start off well for the defense, however, as they allowed North Texas to drive down the field and score an early touchdown. From then on, the defense came out motivated the rest of the way, holding NT to one touchdown the rest of the night.
“Coach just kept telling us that we were that close,” Huff said of Coach Tommy West’s message to the line. “Nobody was hurt, it was just a couple plays here and there, but we came out after that and executed our assignments like we knew we could. We came out on top.”
The rushing performance comes on the heels of matchups such as Vanderbilt and Bowling Green where the opposing running backs were force-fed the ball the entire game. While Western Kentucky is known for being a pass-first team, Coach West knows that the defensive line will have to play great to have a chance to win.
WKU is coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Louisiana Tech and looking to get back to winning football. While they’ve dominated in their wins, they were blown out by Alabama 38-10 in a game that was very similar to one that MTSU played in last year. The Hilltoppers, just like MT, also lost to Vanderbilt in a game that they controlled early. After going up 14-0, WKU went on to lose in overtime after failing a two-point conversion that would’ve won the game.
“Even though these guys are a big pass team, we still have to stay in our gaps and stop the run. We can’t give them some big plays from the run game,” West said. “We [also] have got to put pressure on the quarterback. You always try to get a quarterback rattled and hit him early so they know you’re there. If we can do that, we have got a chance to be successful.”
WKU is an entirely different offense from North Texas, but for the boys in blue, it’s still all about the details.
“It’s just doing the little things, doing your assignments,” Senior defensive end Steven Rhodes said when asked about defending WKU. “Everybody working together… not trying to do too much. We do the same thing day in and day out, the focus is just a little different.”
Dubbed the “100 Miles of Hate” Rivalry, both players and coaches are looking forward to battling a rival with first place in the Conference USA East division on the line.
“Every gameday, we come ready to ride,” Rhodes said.
Make no mistake. While the players and coaches approach it like a normal conference matchup, everyone knows how big of a game this truly means to both programs.
“I’m not going to give you an old coaching cliche and say it’s just another game because it’s not,” Coach West said. “It’s Western Kentucky; they don’t like us and we don’t like them. These are fun games to be in, fun games to be a part of.”
The Blue Raiders will march into battle with the Hilltoppers on Oct. 15 at Floyd Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. and will be aired on ESPN3.
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