OLD SCHOOL RIVALS/Western Kentucky looks for bounce-back win against MTSU


Western Kentucky’s football team is looking for a lift as it turns its focus to Conference USA play.

The Hilltoppers have dropped two straight games after opening the season with decisive home victories over South Florida and an FCS opponent, Houston Christian University.

First, the Hilltoppers traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to tangle with sixth-ranked Ohio State. Western trailed 14-10 midway through the second quarter before falling apart, particularly defensively, in a 63-10 loss to the Buckeyes.

Then, the Tops ventured south, to square off with Troy University, and a late comeback bid fell short in a 27-24 loss to the Trojans in Troy, Alabama.

Now, after a short work week, Western Kentucky begins Conference USA play against longtime rival Middle Tennessee State University. It’s the first of two consecutive Thursday night games, the second one on the road next week against Louisiana Tech, and after an open date, the ‘Toppers will play twice on Tuesday night, first on the road against Jacksonville State and then at home against another C-USA newcomer, Liberty University.

Fifth-year WKU head coach Tyson Helton seems to be embracing the Thursday night opportunity. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium, and the game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.

Helton said the Hilltoppers are “excited about opening conference play … (it’s a) big rivalry game, in Middle Tennessee, a five-day turnaround from our last game …

“In some ways, I kind of like it, to be honest with you. It gets here on you quick. You get to go back out there, at home. Play fast. (We) had a tough loss at Troy and I can’t think of any better way of hurrying up, and five days later getting back on the field. See if we can go get a big win.”

WKU has had the upper hand on MTSU since Helton’s arrival, winning all four games against the Blue Raiders, including last year’s 35-17 victory in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Hilltoppers now lead the all-time series, 36-35-1, in a rivalry that goes all the way back to their days in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Hilltoppers are likely to put the game in the hands of senior QB Austin Reed, although the weather forecast is a little ominous, with heavy rain expected for much of the day. Veteran WKU receiver Dalvin Smith, who injured his right ankle in the HCU game, is expected to return for the Hilltoppers.

“It’ll take everything we’ve got to win this game,” Helton said.

Western Kentucky is playing in a revamped Conference USA, with new members such as Jacksonville State, New Mexico State, Sam Houston State and Liberty. The Hilltoppers loomed as a preseason favorite but a third consecutive defeat could change that narrative in a hurry.

“It’s almost like you’re starting over,” Helton said. “Everybody wipes the slate clean.”

MTSU (1-3) lost at home last week, dropping a 31-23 decision to Colorado State, but the Blue Raiders took Missouri to the limit before falling 23-19 to the Tigers on September 9 in Columbia, Missouri.

Rick Stockstill is in his 18th year as the Blue Raiders’ head coach, with a career record of 110-106. WKU will be opening Conference USA play against MTSU for the first time since 2014, not long after both schools left the Sun Belt Conference.

Injuries have taken an early toll on the Hilltoppers, but Helton said that could help the Hilltoppers build some depth for the long haul.

“We’ve had to play a lot of young players,” Helton said. “We’ve had to play a lot of new players, and make some adjustments. We’ve got to get a lot better. We know what we need to win.”