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MTSU, Western square off for 2nd in Sun Belt

Thursday, November 1, 2012

(Photo)
Middle Tennessee running back Drayton Calhoun slips past North Texas linebacker Derek Akunne in the Blue Raiders SunBelt win last Saturday.
(T-G Photo by Gary Johnson)
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) -- More than regional bragging rights are on the line when Western Kentucky hosts Middle Tennessee on Thursday night.

Separated by just 100 miles, the schools are even closer in the Sun Belt Conference standings. The Hilltoppers (6-2 overall), Blue Raiders (5-3) and Arkansas State Red Wolves (5-3) are all tied for second at 3-1.

Help needed

The winner of Thursday's game remains within striking distance of first-place Louisiana-Monroe (6-2, 4-0), which beat WKU 43-42 in overtime on Oct. 20 and MTSU 31-17 on Oct. 6. The loser will need outside help just to finish second in the conference.

While WKU coach Willie Taggart downplayed the rivalry with MTSU, he acknowledged Thursday night's contest has become an elimination game.

"Both teams have a lot to play for," Taggart said. "I think it's going to be an exciting ballgame and both teams are hungry and both teams want something special."

The Blue Raiders can become bowl eligible with a win over the Hilltoppers.

"There's a lot of meat left on that bone, so to speak," MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. "We put ourselves in a position (where) we're 3-1 in the conference. They're 3-1 in the conference. ... It's a huge game for us and we'll prepare for it that way."

Slowing the pass

The Hilltoppers must slow down the Blue Raiders' potent passing game led by Logan Kilgore, whose 67 percent completion rate is second in the Sun Belt behind WKU's Kawaun Jakes (69.7 percent).

Kilgore has also shown the ability to move outside the pocket, something WKU defensive coordinator Lance Guidry said his team will try to prevent.

Kilgore "does a great job of throwing the ball away when he gets pressure and he can also get away from the pressure with his feet," Guidry said. "We're going to have to get after him a little bit up front, maybe get some good coverage, make him hold the ball a little bit."

Kilgore's favorite target is wide receiver Anthony Amos, who leads the Sun Belt with 99.3 receiving yards per game.

That puts a lot of responsibility on WKU cornerbacks Tyree Robinson and Cam Thomas, but Guidry said safeties Jonathan Dowling and Kiante Young could also help in coverage.

Offensively, the Hilltoppers will look to get back on track after one of their most lackluster performances of the season last Saturday against Florida International.

WKU managed 289 yards in the 14-6 win, its lowest offensive output since gaining just 224 in a 35-0 loss to Alabama in September.

'Must be physical'

Running back Antonio Andrews, who has a six-game streak of 100-plus rushing yards, said the Hilltoppers' offense must be more physical on Thursday to avoid a similar outcome.

"All we've got to do is just come out more physical," Andrews said. "We came out lackadaisical two weeks in a row and we just got to fix that."

In WKU's loss to Louisiana-Monroe, the defense gave up a season-worst 43 points.

Against FIU, the defense recorded six sacks and didn't yield a touchdown, but the offense struggled.

Taggart said the team is "due to have an all-around fantastic game" Thursday.

"It's a great opportunity to do it this week on national TV, to get all three phases to play well," he said. "We hadn't done that yet and our guys are eager to do that."