Over the past few years, the WKU Football defense has gone up against one of the best passing offenses in the country every day in practice. That looks to pay dividends when the Hilltoppers face Georgia State in the 2017 AutoNation Cure Bowl, where a primary focus will be on shutting down wide receiver Penny Hart and quarterback Conner Manning.
At 99.5 yards per game, Hart ranks eighth in the nation in receiving, while Manning’s 260.9 yards per contest places him in the top 25 in passing. It will be a matchup of the Panthers’ No. 31 pass offense vs. WKU’s No. 36 pass defense, and the Hilltoppers have held opponents to under 200 yards passing in 6-of-12 games this season.
“Manning is a good manager of the game, they have a really good wideout in Hart, their backs run hard and they have a well-coached o-line,” defensive line coach Jimmy Lindsey said. “We have a great challenge ahead of us. We have to go out and execute and play disciplined football.”
It will be the last go-around for seniors like defensive tackle Chris Johnson, who was one of 12 Hilltoppers to take part in WKU’s commencement ceremonies Saturday. On the field, Johnson is one of two Hilltopper defenders (along with All-Conference USA First Teamer Joel Iyiegbuniwe) to start all 12 games this season. For his performance – 42 tackles, including five for loss, and a team-best seven quarterback hurries – the Gulfport, Miss., native earned All-Conference USA Honorable Mention for his second-consecutive season.
“It’s been exciting to do this one last time with my brothers. We have a strong bond here as a team and it’s one more time to strap it up,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of this time together and have fun.”
That sentiment is also shared by freshmen like Kyle Bailey, who hails from Carrolton, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. In all, eight Hilltoppers in head coach Mike Sanford’s first class hail from the Peach State, while veterans like Dennis Edwards and Drell Greene also call Georgia home, just another wrinkle in this edition of the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
“Everyone’s really excited, you can tell … Everyone’s out there with a lot of energy and flying around,” Bailey said. “Before we head to Orlando we want to focus on intensity and just flying around and making sure everyone’s going full speed on every rep.”
WKU and Georgia State are set to square off Saturday, Dec. 16 in Camping World Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. CT kickoff.
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