Over the past few years, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have been the class of C-USA. That, combined with the fact they’ve played four games in the three years WKU has been in the conference, has caused some to call this a budding rivalry.
They’ve both had a rough start to 2017, with each having to replace some very talented players. After dropping games against P5 teams some thought to be beatable, a lot of people were unsure what to expect out of this game. It wasn’t the shootout we’ve seen from these two in the past, but it was a classic none the less.
WKU pulled out the bag of tricks often in the early going, including an interesting (but successful) two point conversion to take an 8-0 lead. Tech would muster a field goal in response, but a WKU touchdown followed. Tech would manage to cut the deficit to 15-13 by halftime, but WKU was having none of it and scored again to lead 22-13 at the end of the third quarter. Midway through the fourth, the Bulldogs scored to cut it to 22-20, then forced a three and out.
However, they threw an interception on their next drive. After another three and out, Tech drove down the field and a Jonathan Barnes field goal would give La Tech the 23-22 win, despite Kylen Towner’s best efforts to return the kickoff for a score on the final play.
The Bulldog offense still doesn’t look like what it has in years past, but it definitely looks improved from the past two games. J’Mar Smith went 22/39 for 306 yards, with one touchdown and one pick. Although he only put up 10 rushing yards, he looked more willing to run when receivers weren’t open, something that had been an issue in the first two games. By comparison, Mike White for WKU went 25-35 for 226 yards. He didn’t throw any picks, but also no touchdowns. He did pick up a rushing score, however.
WKU picked up 151 rushing yards to Tech’s 122. In addition to White’s touchdown, Quinton Baker and Jakairi Moses also scored on the ground. Baker was injured during the game, which one could argue was a turning point. Tech’s only rushing score came from a wide receiver, Kam McKnight (which isn’t odd if you watched Tech last season).
Speaking of receivers, Teddy Veal had nine receptions, by far the most of any Tech receiver, but it was Rhashid Bonnette who made WKU pay. The sophomore only had three catches, but picked up 140 yards and a touchdown. He was also fingertips away from another long touchdown catch. For WKU, the tandem of Xavier Lane and Deon Yelder led the team with 54 yards each off a combined 11 receptions.
The loss ends a streak of 13 straight C-USA home wins for WKU. Their last such loss was October 4, 2014 against UAB. Their last three C-USA losses have come at the hands of Louisiana Tech, and this is the first time in series history that the home team has lost. If this is going to become a rivalry, that’s a good way to do it.
Both teams are slowly starting to look better following shaky starts. Both teams were heavy preseason favorites to win their divisions, but haven’t looked the part thus far. If they can keep improving, we could see one or both teams back in the championship game, although teams like Middle Tennessee and UTSA may have something to say about that.
Next week, Louisiana Tech will play the second game of their only two-game road trip this season when they travel to South Carolina, who will be coming off a loss to Kentucky. WKU, meanwhile, will stay home for a non-conference home game against Ball State, who just beat an FCS team in a non-blowout manner.