Q&A With Ross Shircliffe from The Towel Rack
Ahead of Georgia State’s matchup with Western Kentucky in the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday, THERSdayNight.com was able to get the lowdown on the Hilltoppers from Ross Shircliffe of The Towel Rack, a site covering WKU Athletics.
THERSdayNight.com: The Hilltoppers won their last three to finish the regular season at 5-6 and earn one of Conference USA’s bowl slots. What was the biggest difference between that 3-0 version of Western Kentucky and the 2-6 team that started the season?
Ross Shircliffe of The Towel Rack: I’d say it was a combination of schedule and the coaching staff adapting to their personnel as the season progressed. WKU had a great season in 2019 finishing 9-4 but they lost several playmakers on offense including quarterback Ty Storey and all-conference receiver Lucky Jackson. With Covid canceling spring practice and limiting fall camp, I don’t think the staff knew exactly how to correctly scheme to the team’s strengths and their early schedule didn’t do them any favors. They had to face a talented Louisville squad and then had a murders row of good to great G5 teams including Liberty, Marshall, UAB, and BYU that all either spent time ranked this season or in UAB’s case won the conference championship. That wasn’t an ideal situation for a team that was trying to find a winning blueprint as they struggled to even get their mojo against the weaker teams on the schedule squeaking out close wins over MTSU & Chattanooga. WKU’s solid defense was plagued by an ineffective offense that left them on the field too long and limited their effectiveness against the high-powered offenses they faced. Luckily for Hilltopper fans, the team didn’t quit and they finished the year strong.
As the season progressed the schedule lightened up as they faced several teams with coaching or covid issues. That gave the team the margin for error that they didn’t have during the first seven games. They found an offensive identity that leaned on the running game and played to quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome’s strengths. The veteran defense also took their game to the next level against lesser offenses and that led to the solid finish. While the 5-6 record wasn’t a success it definitely took a lot of the sting off of the 2-6 start to the season.
THERSdayNight.com: The offense has been led by Maryland grad transfer Tyrell Pigrome for much of the season. How would you rate his performance from this season and what type of quarterback should Panther fans expect to see in him?
Ross: Pigrome is a lightning rod of a player to Hilltopper fans. On the surface, you look at his numbers and may think he’s an ok player (1423 yards passing and 9/0 TD/INT ratio). But throughout the year he struggled to consistently keep the offense moving and struggled to push the ball downfield causing teams to load the box against WKU’s rushing attack. He was benched for a 2 game stretch and came back as the starter after backup Kavaris Thomas was injured. Since he earned his job back, the coaching staff learned to play to his strengths as a game manager and have started to utilize his legs more. He is a mobile player that can be elusive if a defense isn’t accounting for him. He is solid on timing routes but struggles with his second or third read. He’s at his best when the running game keeps the offense on schedule and he can hit timing routes for 4-6 yard passes instead of downfield throws. Helton does like to take shots down the field with him as he’s got a decent arm and late in the season the deep passes that were not existent finally started finding receivers. If he passes for more than 200 yards the Hilltoppers will have a good day, if he’s below 150 that means the offense is probably struggling.
THERSdayNight.com: Who are some of the other skill-position players that Western Kentucky will be relying on to have a good day on offense this Saturday?
Ross: RB Gaej Walker is a former 1200 yard rusher that came on during the Hilltoppers strong finish to the season. He rushed for over 75 yards in five of the Hilltoppers’ last six games. He’s at his best when he gets more than 15 carries in a game and has breakaway ability as he broke three runs over 30+ yards down the stretch. Tight End Josh Simon is a physical specimen at 6’5 240. He has struggled to maintain his freshman All-American form into his sophomore season but he still finished third on the team with 29 receptions for 286 yards and 3 touchdowns. If the Hilltoppers can get him going then the offense usually has a solid day. The rest of the Hilltopper receiving corps is full of steady but not spectacular receivers that have had their moments including Mitchell Tinsley & Xavier Lane. Two freshman receivers that had strong finishes during the last two games include Malachi Corley & Snellville’s Dakota Thomas, they could have an unexpected impact during the bowl game.
THERSdayNight.com: After beginning the season with some turnover struggles, the Hilltoppers haven’t coughed up the ball since the BYU game. What has spurred their newfound ball security, and do you expect it to continue vs Georgia State?
Ross: I’d say it is a combination of luck along with Tyrell Pigrome’s game manager abilities. After he was benched for three fumbles against Marshall, he took ball security more seriously and has made that an emphasis. They also have gotten lucky as several bounces have gone their way down the stretch. With the time off, I don’t expect the turnoverless streak to continue as rust will probably play a factor on Saturday.
THERSdayNight.com: This is the second year running WKU’s defense has allowed less than 25 ppg and the defense is ranked 30th in SP+ for 2020. What is it that makes DC Clayton White’s unit so stingy and who are some of the key contributors on that side of the ball?
Ross: White is finishing up his fourth year as defensive coordinator and the Hilltopper defense is loaded with upperclassmen that have played 3 or more years in the system. The unit has a little bend but don’t break tendencies but do a great job of preventing the big play and making big third-down stops when it matters. Against the pass, the Hilltoppers allowed just 170 yards per game through the air. That starts with WKU’s pass rush creating havoc in the defensive backfield with Defensive End DeAngelo Malone projected to be drafted in the 2021 NFL draft. Malone has faced constant double teams this year but swarms over the field finishing fourth in tackles (65), first in tackles for loss (10.5), and first in sacks on the team (6). WKU also has a senior-dominated secondary that swarms the ball and does a great job with run support. Safeties Devon Key & Antwon Kincade led the team in tackles and make plays all over the field. One last player that came on late is Defensive Tackle Ricky Barber, who does more than clogging the middle he makes plays finishing with 41 tackles and 4 sacks from the tackle position.
THERSdayNight.com: On the flip side, are there any weaknesses on that side of the ball you’d expect Georgia State to try and exploit?
Ross: The team isn’t great against the run as they allowed 165 yards per game on the ground. If Coates or Brown can get going, the defense sometimes has lapses and long runs can be had. If Brown can be mobile and extend plays with his legs then he can take advantage of the unit’s tendency to allow sometimes stay on the field too long. Down the stretch, that weakness subsided but they were still vulnerable to it.
THERSdayNight.com: Looking at the big picture now, two years into his time in Bowling Green, what is the growing consensus on the job Tyson Helton is doing as head coach?
Ross: Helton is in a weird spot right now. Heading into the year he was highly thought of after winning Conference USA coach of the year with his 9-4 debut (including a win at Arkansas) which erased the stink of the Mike Sanford era. There were high hopes heading into the season but the 2-6 start caused most of the fan base to question his long-term effectiveness. Luckily for him, the combination of the strong finish with key coaching additions (Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittney) has him back in most fan’s good graces. Overall I think he’s got the program in a good position to compete for a conference title, the long term question is whether he can develop a consistent offense that comes close to the Brohm years and the team can widen their margin for error in CUSA.
THERSdayNight.com: How do you see this one playing out? What’s your prediction for this much anticipated 2017 Cure Bowl rematch?
Ross: Having attended the 2017 Cure Bowl, I hope that this team comes out more inspired than that performance. This game is strength (WKU’s Defense) vs strength (Georgia State’s Offense) and that will make for an interesting game. I look for it to be a defensive battle early as each team knocks off the rust of not playing for 3 weeks. I can see both offenses getting going in the second quarter and it will come down to turnovers finishing drives. If WKU can control the game with their power rushing attack and force a couple of turnovers then I see this game being played in the 20’s. If the Panthers can get their passing game going and it’s played in the 30’s then it’s to their advantage. I see WKU’s veteran defensive unit coming through and the Hilltoppers offense making just enough big plays to grind out a 24-20 victory to finish the 2020 season with some momentum.
Thanks to Ross for the time! For the WKU perspective on this bowl game, be sure to check The Towel Rack on Twitter @TheTowelRackWKU and on their website at https://medium.com/the-red-towel