Points and big plays should be plentiful on Saturday in Bowling Green, Ky., as Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech meet in Conference USA’s Championship Game. The Hilltoppers are making their second consecutive appearance in the C-USA league title game, as coach Jeff Brohm’s team defeated Southern Miss 45-28 last season. Louisiana Tech has only one previous appearance in this game, dropping a 26-23 matchup to Marshall in 2014.
This is the second time the Hilltoppers and Bulldogs have met in the 2016 season. On Oct. 6, Louisiana Tech defeated WKU in a high-scoring 55-52 contest. In that matchup, these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards (988) of total offense, punted only four times and accounted for 52 first downs.
WKU’s Jeff Brohm is one of the nation’s rising stars in the Group of 5 coaching ranks and is 29-19 through three seasons in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers have developed one of the nation’s top offenses under Brohm’s watch and haven’t missed a beat in 2016 after the departure of quarterback Brandon Doughty. New starter Mike White (31 TDs) has been stellar, and the offense has a deep group of talent at receiver and running back. Since the loss at Louisiana Tech in early October, Brohm’s team has been on a mission. Outside of a one-point win against MTSU the following Saturday (Oct. 15), no opponent has been within 28 points of the Hilltoppers. WKU’s six-game winning streak is tied for fifth-longest in the nation.
Louisiana Tech dropped its season finale against Southern Miss (39-24), but this program has won at least eight games for three consecutive years under coach Skip Holtz. The Bulldogs returned only nine starters this fall, yet maintained an explosive attack on offense and gave Arkansas (21-20) and Texas Tech (59-45) all they could handle in non-conference play. Similar to WKU, Louisiana Tech has been dominant in conference play down the stretch. After a 1-3 start, the Bulldogs reeled off seven wins in a row before the Black Friday loss at Southern Miss. During that seven-game winning streak, only one opponent – WKU – was within 20 points of this team.
Louisiana Tech leads the all-time series 4-2 over WKU. However, only three matchups took place since 1974. The Bulldogs hold a 2-1 edge since both programs joined Conference USA.
Louisiana Tech at WKU (C-USA Title Game)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: WKU -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisiana Tech’s Offense
Skip Holtz probably hasn’t received enough national credit for the job he has done in helping Louisiana Tech’s offense rank among the best in the nation. Since taking over the play-calling duties prior to the 2014 season, the Bulldogs have ranked inside of the Conference USA’s top three in scoring and are tied for first in the league in 2016 (44.0 ppg). And it hasn’t been easy in the personnel department for Holtz. He’s done it with three different quarterbacks in that span and had to replace standout running back Kenneth Dixon prior to the 2016 season. Quarterback Ryan Higgins has passed for 3,706 yards and 34 scores this year, while Jarred Craft (997) and Boston Scott (457) lead the way on the ground. Craft leads the team in yards and rushing scores, but Scott (8.0 ypc) has displayed more of a big-play punch in limited time.
Making life easier for Higgins on the outside is the standout receiving duo of Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. The Henderson-Taylor duo is one of the best receiving tandems in the nation, accounting for 176 catches, 2,666 receiving yards and 26 scores this fall. Taylor is a sure-handed option, while Henderson (19.1 ypc) is more of a big-play threat. The Bulldogs are deep at receiver, with Kam McKnight (16), DeJuawn Oliver (11) and Alfred Smith (14) chipping in, while Craft (36 grabs) is a valuable option out of the backfield.
2. WKU’s Offense
Replacing quarterback Brandon Doughty wasn’t supposed to be this easy. After all, Doughty threw for 12,855 yards in his career and posted back-to-back seasons of at least 48 touchdown passes (2014-15). However, even with Doughty taking snaps on the Dolphins’ practice squad, the Hilltoppers’ offense has ranked among the best in the nation. Brohm is one of the nation’s top offensive-minded coaches, guiding WKU’s attack to an average of 44 points per game and 7.5 yards per play.
Mike White replaced Doughty at quarterback, and the USF transfer has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in Conference USA. White’s passing totals (3,606 and 31 TDs) are among the best in the conference, but he’s also limited mistakes (only five interceptions on 355 attempts), completed 67.3 percent of his passes and leads C-USA with 19 completions of 40 yards or more.
Anthony Wales headlines a deep backfield, rushing for 1,167 yards and 20 scores this year. The senior also averages 7.03 yards per carry. Quinton Baker (533) and Marquez Trigg (298) have flashed potential in limited action after a season-ending injury to D’Andre Ferby (650 yards in 2015). And White isn’t hurting for playmakers on the outside, as Taywan Taylor (82 catches for 1,392 yards) and Nicholas Norris (67 catches) are two of the best in C-USA.
In addition to the standout quarterback play and skill talent, let’s give a tip of the cap to WKU’s offensive line. This group has allowed only 16 sacks this season and is led by All-America candidate Forrest Lamp at left tackle.
3. Which Defense Steps Up?
Normally, we would look at a specific matchup in our game previews, but this game is really all about points, points and more points. And of course, who can get a timely stop on defense. So that brings us to our next point: Which defense steps up and can generate the most stops or create a couple of takeaways to change the outlook in this game?
In the first meeting, Louisiana Tech won the turnover battle with a plus-two margin and was only forced to punt on its last two drives. Statistically, WKU’s defense has been better this season. The Hilltoppers are holding opponents to 22.4 points a game, compared to 30.6 to the Bulldogs. Additionally, WKU is holding opponents to five yards per play, while Louisiana Tech allows 5.4. If there’s a big disparity in the major statistical columns, the Hilltoppers is second in C-USA in pass efficiency defense and the Bulldogs rank 11th. The Bulldogs have been better at creating havoc around the line of scrimmage by generating 82 tackles for a loss and 42 sacks.
One other stat to consider: WKU is third in Conference USA in third-down defense, while Louisiana Tech is 11th. In a tight game, turnovers, third down and red-zone defense could play a huge role in the outcome.
If you like offense, this is the game to watch on Saturday. Both teams are loaded with playmakers, and the two quarterbacks – Ryan Higgins (Louisiana Tech) and Mike White (WKU) are two of the best in Conference USA. Another in-game matchup to watch will be the one-on-one battle between WKU left tackle Forrest Lamp and Louisiana Tech end Jaylon Ferguson. After falling short in Ruston earlier this year, the Hilltoppers have one thing on their mind: Revenge. The homefield advantage is just enough to swing this one in WKU’s favor, as the Hilltoppers repeat as Conference USA champions in a high-scoring affair.