The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are coming off a 42-34 loss to the Fighting Illini, a game in which WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt's defense gave up over 500 passing yards to Illini QB Wes Lunt, and the Hilltopper offense had three turnovers. WKU will look to be more efficient in this Saturday's contest contest with Middle Tennessee; the first game played between the two former-Sun Belt Conference rivals since 2012.
The Blue Raiders are coming off a 35-24 loss to Minnesota, and have just as much room for improvement as their in-conference rival WKU. Middle Tennessee will hope to get off to a quick start, unlike Saturday where the Minnesota Golden Gophers jumped to a 28-0 lead in the first two quarters. Middle Tennessee outscored Minnesota 24-7 in the final two quarters, but it still wasn't enough.
Points of Emphasis for WKU
1. Get the Offense in a Rhythm
Redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty will need to get his high-potential offense in a rhythm if the Hilltoppers want to come out of Murfreesboro victorious. Doughty completed less than 60 percent of his passes on Saturday, as the WKU offense seemed to struggle at times against the sound Illinois defense. Brandon Doughty can be nearly impossible to stop when in a rhythm (see: his stats vs. Bowling Green in Week 1). WKU still managed to score 34 points on Saturday against the Fighting Illini, but the Hilltoppers had many chances to score more.
The WKU offensive line looked solid for the most part, but the Illini defense was (expectedly) successful when it brought pressure. Doughty will have to get rid of the ball quicker and have better awareness in the pocket to avoid silly turnovers this week.
2. Defense: Bend but Don't Break!
I thought WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt defensive game-plan was downright awful. The one part of the Western Kentucky defense that I considered sound was the experienced secondary, and yet Holt didn't let them be aggressive. For most of the game, the cornerbacks were playing ten yards off their man. The thinking here was that Illinois QB Wes Lunt would beat the WKU secondary deep if they were to play tight, which makes sense; except Lunt still torched the Hilltopper defense. It was hard to watch Western Kentucky stick to their game-plan and give up so many yards. Wes Lunt looked shaky at times early, and bringing some pressure and playing tight coverage could have prevented him from getting in a rhythm later in the game.
This week Nick Holt will need to pray. He must pray that his defense can make some big plays and bend, but not break. Western Kentucky had chances to force more turnovers, and got a huge one that put them back in the game in the second half. This young defense Nick Holt is working with will only improve, but it must improve quickly.
Points of Emphasis for Middle Tennessee
1. Avoid turnovers!
Middle Tennessee sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer threw three interceptions in Week 2 against Minnesota, and Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill knows his quaterback's decision-making must improve in order to defeat Western Kentucky.
2. Stop the Run
The Middle Tennessee defense gave up 220 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Minnesota senior runningback David Cobb in Week 2 on only 29 carries (7.58 yards per carry). Western Kentucky ran the ball 30 times in their Week 2 bout with Illinois; a rushing attack led by Leon Allen, who ran for 118 yards on Saturday. If WKU's rushing attack is successful early, that could spell disaster for the Blue Raiders, who also have the challenge of facing the Hilltopper passing attack led by streaky quaterback Brandon Doughty.