Two of the more balanced teams in Conference USA look to stay near the top of the conference standings as the UAB Blazers take on the WKU Hilltoppers in a Friday night clash.
The Blazers (4-2, 2-1 C-USA) enter Friday riding a two-game win streak following a 34-20 victory over Charlotte last weekend where the running game combined for 279 yards. Star running back DeWayne McBride spearheaded the attack with 137 yards and two scores and has now hit the century mark in rushing in every game this season. UAB is second in the country and eighth nationally in rushing yards per game (244.0), while also boasting a defense that is No. 1 in the conference in total yards allowed per contest (319.2).
Following two consecutive losses, it was a bounce-back performance from the Hilltoppers (4-3, 2-1) last weekend, thrashing Middle Tennessee 35-17. WKU got contributions from every facet with the offense generating 278 yards through the air, another 165 on the ground, and the defense contributed a 42-yard pick-six in the runaway victory. The win also was WKU's 600th in program history.
UAB at WKU
When UAB Has the Ball
The offense starts and ends with DeWayne McBride who now sits No. 1 in the country in rushing yards per game (155.6), and is fourth in rushing touchdowns (11) despite only playing in five games this season. But with every great running back there is typically a dominant offensive line paving the way and that is the case with the Blazers. Despite having to replace multiple starters in the offseason, UAB’s offensive line remains one of the best in the conference, ranking 24th in line yards, 25th in stuff rate, and 39th in rush play success rate (per CollegeFootballData).
McBride is the headliner, but the passing game has held up its end of the bargain too, though the Blazers don’t put the ball in the air much, averaging just 20 attempts per game. Quarterback Dylan Hopkins is proficient, completing 67 percent of his passes with only two interceptions thrown on the year. Trea Shropshire is the team’s top big-play threat on the outside, now averaging more than 25 yards per catch over a three-year span.
The battle in the trenches will be key for Friday’s showdown as the Hilltoppers come in with the No. 1 rushing defense in the conference at 120.4 yards per game. Very good on the surface, but potentially a bit deceiving when digging in further. Of the six FBS opponents WKU has faced this season, no team ranks higher than 73rd nationally in rushing yards per game. UTSA is 74th and gashed the Hilltoppers for 213 yards and three rushing TDs a few weeks ago.
When WKU Has the Ball
This is not last year’s record-setting offense, but the Hilltoppers will sling it around as much as anyone, averaging just over 44 pass attempts per game. Former Division II transfer Austin Reed has been everything the staff could’ve asked for, completing better than 70 percent of his throws for 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions, while also providing an added dimension on the ground with 151 rushing yards and four more scores. Sophomore slot receiver Malachi Corley has become the top target of late with double-digit receptions in back-to-back games.
Maybe the biggest difference offensively between this year’s squad and last is the balance with the running game where the Hilltoppers are averaging around 40 yards per game more than in 2021. Sophomore Kye Robichaux averages just 9.8 carries per contest, but they’re impactful when he does run at 6.6 yards per attempt. Making WKU one-dimensional will be the goal for UAB on Friday which enters the matchup ranking second in Conference USA against the run (143.0 ypg). After struggling out of the gate, the Blazers have limited their last three opponents to just 3.7 yards per carry.
Big Friday matchup here with both teams sitting at 2-1 in the conference, still squarely in the mix, but looking up to both UTSA and North Texas. From a number of levels, these teams are very evenly matched, both sporting balanced offenses that are in the top half of the country in third-down efficiency and rarely turn the ball over much. Defensively, both the Blazers and Hilltoppers have turned teams over a lot this season, combining for 30 takeaways and a plus-11 total turnover margin. The big question here is if the WKU defense can live up to its No. 1 billing as the top run defense in the conference, or is that predicated on the soft schedule? We’ll call for the mini upset with DeWayne McBride and Co. continuing to churn out yards on the ground.
Prediction: UAB 30, WKU 28
Podcast: Week 8 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
*Price as of publication.