It’s unusual to find a pair of conference heavyweights squaring off so early in the season, but that’s what’s happening in Bowling Green, Ky., Thursday night when Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky stage an inter-divisional C-USA clash that has huge implications — despite its September date.
Both teams enter the game with 1-0 marks, although WKU’s 14-12 road win over Vanderbilt, accomplished when the Hilltoppers stuffed a Commodore two-point conversion late in the game is certainly more impressive than Louisiana Tech’s 62-15 thrashing of helplessly overmatched Southern. Both teams were favorites to take their respective divisions, so this could be a preview of December’s Conference USA Championship Game.
Despite the teams’ favorable preseason prospects, Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz is trying to play up the Hilltoppers’ advantage. Western Kentucky’s game with Vandy was played Sept. 3, while the Bulldogs’ meeting with Southern came a couple days later, giving WKU more time to prepare. And though many oddsmakers have made the Bulldogs a one-point favorite — and Louisiana Tech walloped the Hilltoppers, 59-10 last year — Holtz is looking to establish his side as the underdog.
“We are going against a team that has been picked to win the East,” Holtz said. “Most people pick them to win this game. Most people pick them to win the conference. We realize going there we are an underdog in this situation and we are looking forward to the challenge."
Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Louisiana Tech -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Revenge is Sweet
Of course, it is only delectable if a team can achieve it, and that’s what Western Kentucky wants. The Hilltoppers were manhandled last year by the Bulldogs, who intercepted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty four times and stifled the nation’s sixth-leading scoring attack.
There can be no denying that Western Kentucky wants to treat its fans to a reversal of fortune, but to do that the attack that was so prolific last year must awaken. The Hilltoppers managed just 246 total yards against Vanderbilt, struggled mightily on the ground and punted 10 times. Granted, an SEC defense is not as easy to throttle as is a C-USA outfit, but victory will only be likely if things pick up on that side of the ball.
2. QB Battle
Western Kentucky received some big news when Doughty was granted a sixth year of eligibility after a 2014 season that included a nation’s-best 4,830 yards and 49 TD passes. Although he was a modest 19-of-30 for 209 yards and a score against the Commodores, he is expected to be far more productive the rest of the season.
Louisiana Tech counters with Florida transfer Jeff Driskell, who played just a quarter-and-a-half against Southern but still managed to throw for 274 yards and four scores on just 12-of-15 passing. Driskell may not have been able to grab the starting spot for the Gators, but he certainly looks comfortable in Ruston and could be one of the nation’s most dynamic transfers this year.
3. Defensive Maneuvers
Last year, the Hilltoppers were fifth worst in the country in scoring defense (39.9 ppg), but they appeared much more sturdy in the win over Vanderbilt. Against a Louisiana Tech attack that put up 587 total yards, despite its starters playing less than a half, WKU must match its success or get overrun again.
“The defense has been hearing a lot after last year,” Western Kentucky tight end Tyler Higbee said. “They didn't have the best year. But they came out and they played [against Vanderbilt]. They stepped up today. They performed really well. We knew it was going to happen. At the beginning of camp in the spring, we added a few guys to the defense and some young guys getting more experience, and they won this game for us today."
The Hilltoppers have plenty to play for after last year’s shellacking at the hands of the Bulldogs, but both teams realize that a loss in this one isn’t crippling, since each has all of its games against divisional rivals remaining. Whoever wins, though, does establish itself as the C-USA big dog.
Although Western Kentucky’s defense was improved against Vanderbilt, it will struggle to keep Louisiana Tech under control. It’s unlikely Doughty will toss four picks again, as he did last year, but he will have to have a big day to offset what should be strong showings by Driskell and the rest of the Louisiana Tech offense. In the end, Tech has too much firepower.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, Western Kentucky 28
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.