Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton has had the second Saturday in October circled on his calendar since spring ball. Nothing like getting started early preparing to face Army and its triple option.
“Our guys have gotten a lot of reps just to prepare for it because there’s so much you have to be ready for,” Helton said. “You can’t just install it in game week. There’s a lot of retention there for what we’re about to do, so they understand the calls and they understand what they need to be in. That has helped a lot for our defense.”
Army, which won a school-record 11 games last year and finished the season ranked No. 19, is off to a 3-2 start for the third straight time and enters the game against the Hilltoppers (3-2) coming off a disheartening home loss to Tulane.
“Sitting 3-2 isn’t a bad place to be,” Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. said. “Yeah, you want to win ’em all and be undefeated, but that’s not where we are right now, so we’ve got to make the best of our situation and bounce back. Me and my teammates know exactly what it takes to get to where we want to be.”
The 42-33 loss to the Green Wave snapped Army’s 15-game winning streak at Michie Stadium, and the run game stalled against Tulane’s swarming defense. The Black Knights, who count on averaging at least 4 yards a carry, averaged 4.4 against Tulane, but take away a 43-yard run by Hopkins and they finished with 150 rushing yards on 43 carries, a 3.4 average.
That’s not a recipe for success for an attack that relies on possession time to level the playing field.
“We have to run for more yards than that,” Army coach Jeff Monken said.
The fix is simple.
“If we’re going to run the ball effectively, we’ve got to be able to sustain blocks,” Monken said. “That’s really the key.”
Army led the nation in rushing two years ago on the way to a 10-win season and last year finished second. The Black Knights rank eighth entering Saturday night’s game, averaging 273.4 and 4.8 per carry.
“It’s just a lot of mistakes that we can control,” Hopkins said. “I feel like that’s been the story of our season. We’ve played a lot of great teams and we’ve done a lot of great things, but we’ve also made a lot of mistakes that we can control that would have put us in a better position.”
Other things to know when Army visits Western Kentucky:
MALONE THE MAULER
WKU junior defensive end DeAngelo Malone is one of only 19 players in the Bowl Subdivision with three-plus sacks in a single game this season, and he’s one of only 11 with four or more tackles for loss. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Malone leads Conference USA with 7.0 sacks and his 13.0 tackles for loss tops the nation.
“Defensively, they’re really, really stout. Great against the run,” Monken said. “(They’re) doing a great job in keeping people from turning the sticks.”
The Hilltoppers, who beat Old Dominion 20-3 last week, have held their opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter four straight times and are allowing just 2.8 yards per carry.
“It’s another great test for us defensively,” Helton said. “The biggest thing for our defense is to make sure to get to second-and-long situations. This (Army) offense is built on 3- or 4-yard gains. It’s a long, slow death if they’re consistent on that. Just can’t give them anything easy.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
Army has been focusing on fundamentals in practice — no jumping offside, no missed assignments, making the right decisions — in hopes of improving play on both sides of the ball. The defense allowed 324 rushing yards and 201 passing in the loss to Tulane.
“It just comes down to being better fundamentally and being more physical,” Army senior linebacker Cole Christiansen said. “It comes down to the way we practice. I think we’ve been preparing well. We’ve just gotten away from constant focus on fundamentals and doing it the right way every time.
“It’s those things that you have to constantly be practicing or else it goes away. It’s a perishable skill.”
WKU is 2-0 against Army. The Hilltoppers won 52-24 at home in 2014 behind Leon Allen’s three TDs and record 345 yards rushing, and they bested the Black Knights 21-17 at Michie Stadium the previous year when Antonio Andrews, once recruited by Army, scored the game-winning touchdown with 32 seconds left.