Two struggling Conference USA teams meet looking for their first victory of 2020
Projected by many to be at, or near the top of the C-USA East division standings, WKU (0-2) has struggled early on in the second year under head coach Tyson Helton as the Hilltoppers have coincidentally allowed exactly 487 total yards in each of the first two games. After ranking No. 1 in the conference last season in total defense, the Hilltoppers have given up 30-plus points to both Louisville and Liberty and are allowing 249.0 yards per game on the ground — fourth-worst in the nation.
What better way to fix a porous rush defense then facing a team in Middle Tennessee (0-3) that can't run the ball at all? We finally saw some signs of life last Friday against UTSA where the Blue Raiders ran for 191 yards as a team, but even after that performance, Middle Tennessee ranks 54th out of 72 teams in rushing, averaging just 117 yards per game and under four yards a carry. That's just the tip of the iceberg as to what's gone wrong for MTSU in 2020 as they've allowed 37+ points in all three games this season with an average point differential of 26 in their three losses.
WKU at Middle Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN3
Spread: WKU -7
When WKU Has the Ball
While we touched on the Hilltoppers' defense in the intro, the offense hasn't been much better early on as WKU ranks dead last in the conference in yards per game (269.5) and rank in the bottom third in all other primary offensive categories.
Starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, a Maryland grad transfer, has been just OK. He has thrown four touchdowns and zero interceptions through two games but is failing to threaten opposing defenses down the field as he's averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt. Doesn't help the cause when your projected top two receivers entered the transfer portal within the first month of the season. Pigrome will now rely on a pair of junior college transfers at receiver in Mitchell Tinsley and Craig Burt Jr., who already have three touchdowns in the early going.
Running the ball has been the biggest disappointment, and it's unclear why that's been the case since all five starting offensive linemen have graded out well so far according to Pro Football Focus. Pigrome offers his dual-threat capabilities, rushing for 142 yards on 31 carries (4.58 ypc) to lead the team, but it's been a struggle for former 1,000-yard back Gaej Walker in the early going, averaging well under three yards an attempt. Saturday could provide a "get right" opportunity for Walker against a Middle Tennessee defense that is allowing upwards of 220 yards a game on the ground.
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
Albeit in a losing effort, we started to see some progress with this Middle Tennessee offense that averaged over 408 yards per game in 2019. After scoring just 14 points combined in the first two games, the Blue Raiders racked up over 560 yards and 35 points in the loss to UTSA, with quarterback Asher O'Hara starting to look like the 2019 version of himself, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns. Head coach Rick Stockstill was insistent prior to the game that Middle Tennessee had to get some production out of their running game to assist their struggling quarterback, and the Blue Raiders were able to rush for 191 yards in the contest.
There should be some running lanes available against this week against a leaky WKU defense that has been a far cry from where it was at a year ago, allowing over five yards a carry on the year. The Hilltoppers held up, for the most part, against Louisville in Week 1 but were absolutely gashed by Liberty and their dual-threat QB Malik Willis.
Middle Tennessee's best weapon on offense this season has been senior receiver Jarrin Pierce, who is third in the country with 22 receptions, 18 of which came in the last two games alone. Against UTSA, the Blue Raiders finally got contributions from others in the starting lineup, namely Yusuf Ali and DJ England-Chisolm, who combined for 12 catches and a pair of touchdowns.
This matchup actually sets up quite nicely for both teams trying to fix some of their deficiencies that have resulted in the slow start to 2020. WKU can't stop the run, and Middle Tennessee can't run the ball. Flip it around — the Hilltoppers are averaging less than four yards a carry on the ground, and Middle Tennessee has allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the nation with 10. With the Blue Raiders promising performance a week ago, looking somewhat proficient on offense for the first time all year, combined with being at home, Middle Tennessee (+7) looks like the smart play, but like the Hilltoppers outright as they are the better overall team in this contest.
Prediction: WKU 31, Middle Tennessee 27
Podcast: CFB Week 5 Preview + Predictions
— 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.
(Gaej Walker photo by Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)