It's been a struggle at times for WKU this early season.
The Toppers are still chasing that elusive first win in 2009. Saturday, they'll be looking across the field at a team in a similar predicament in Florida International. The Golden Panthers also sit at 0-4.
But the mindset that WKU took into Navy that worked so well still applies now: just have fun.
"All we've focused on is, hey, it's Sun Belt Conference play, we're 0-0 and we've a great opportunity to get to 1-0," coach David Elson said. "That's the thing, when you take the approach of a new season, it's early in this new season. No question, there's a sense of urgency of obviously wanting to get on the right side of the win and loss column, but also, we wouldn't be the only one at 0-1 after Saturday."
This time, the Toppers are a little banged up. Senior wide receiver Jake Gaebler returns to the offense, but the defense will be without junior linebacker Mike Gothard (strained right knee) and redshirt freshman safety Ryan Beard (partially torn right PCL) while redshirt freshman nose tackle Jamarcus Allen is out for the rest of the season (torn left Achilles).
But in their places will be a few underclassmen with a chance to step up, including true freshman safety Kareem Peterson and defensive tackle James Hervey. The latter has been redshirted up to this point.
"When you're used to practicing with the ones, you've got everybody in the right spot, so it definitely hurts a little bit," junior linebacker Chris Bullard said. "But it's also a chance for other people to step up. During camp, we did a good job of just rolling people in getting people ready to roll with the ones and different people going with different groups."
Offensively, senior quarterback Brandon Smith will again be out with a strained throwing shoulder. He'll be replaced at backup by sophomore Tyler Bruce.
Beard was finally getting his feet back, having played the last two games after missing the first two games. He was suspended for violation f team rules.
"We've had a few injuries in the secondary lately," sophomore safety Mark Santoro said. "We mix things around, but every guy that goes in, they know what they're doing. We've got Jamal Forrest, who's a freshman and he's starting to understand more and more as the year goes on. Guys are starting to gain a little bit more experience, which helps. That way, we know whoever we put in, they're gonna hopefully make a play."
Peterson will be asked to play more nickel coverage as WKU will be defending a Golden Panthers offense that has been effective throwing the ball this season. The biggest target will be sophomore wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who also doubles as a big-time return threat, both at kick return and punt return.
"You've gotta know where he is on the field every play," Santoro said. "They'll move around, they'll move him to slot receiver, outside receiver, they'll motion him. They're gonna give him the ball however they can. You've just gotta know where he is on every play and when he gets the ball in his hands, we've gotta make tackles."
And though FIU has yet to show it, the Toppers will be guarding against a run game that the Golden Panthers are looking to resuscitate.
"The worse thing you can do is look at a team's stats and say, well, they haven't run the ball well, so let's focus all on the quarterback," Elson said. "We've gotta get them in long-yardage situations. And you know they're wanting to get their running game going. And they're looking at our stats saying hey, we've got a good chance to get our running game going. We've gotta realize that they're gonna try to do that."
It's back to business. But WKU is still trying to keep sight of the mindset that made things interesting at Navy.
Elson said this week, at least one day was one of the best practices of the season. This time, the fun will still be there, but a degree of toughness will be mixed in as well.
"We're just gonna fight," Santoro said. "We're gonna play as hard as we always do, we're gonna go out there and just try to make some plays. They're gonna come in here and do the same thing. One of us is gonna come out of here with a victory."
Check Out InsideHilltopperSports.com's insider's only look at WKU's Wednesday practice, including a full, in-depth injury report.
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