Western Kentucky aims to continue December success vs. Georgia State

Western Kentucky has become accustomed to playing -- and winning -- in December.

The Hilltoppers are headed to a bowl for their fourth straight season. They've won their last three bowl games.

Georgia State doesn't quite have the same postseason pedigree as WKU, but is excited to make a run at the young program's first-ever bowl victory, when the Panthers from the Sun Belt Conference take on the Hilltoppers from Conference USA on Saturday in the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

A win for the Panthers also would set a school record for wins with seven.

Georgia State launched its football program in 2010. The Panthers joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2013. Their only other bowl berth came in 2015, also at the Cure Bowl. They lost 27-16 to San Jose State that year. They're looking to make amends this year.

"Anytime you become bowl-eligible and get invited, that's a big deal, especially for a program this young," Georgia State first-year coach Shawn Elliott told reporters this week. "Our guys are extremely proud to be going down there, representing Georgia State and hoping to set a standard and get their bowl victory ever."

Western Kentucky (6-6) got off to a strong start to the season and looked like a contender in Conference USA heading into final week of October. But the Hilltoppers struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, including a 41-17 blowout loss at Florida International in the regular-season finale.

The Hilltoppers' bowl streak looked to be in jeopardy after the disappointing finish, but Cure Bowl officials delivered an invite, and Western Kentucky is looking to make the most it.

"We're going into this game looking at it as a postseason opportunity," Western Kentucky first-year coach Mike Sanford told reporters. "(It's) a true one-game season. It's the postseason."

The Hilltoppers are led by quarterback Mike White. The 6-4, 225-pound senior threw for 3,826 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. He has a variety of weapons in receivers Nacarius Fant and Lucky Jackson and tight end Deon Yelder.

White, an NFL prospect, has had to carry the offensive load. The Hilltoppers have not been able run the football and struggled in pass protection.

Western Kentucky is last in the nation in rushing offense, averaging just 66.1 yards on the ground per game. The Hilltoppers also have allowed 42 sacks this season, the second-most of any bowl team. Only Washington State (44) has surrendered more sacks out of teams that reached bowls.

Georgia State hasn't had much of a pass rush this season, though. The Panthers have only 18 sacks.

Georgia State (6-5), like Western Kentucky, struggled down the stretch, dropping its final two games of the regular season to Appalachian State and Idaho by a combined score of 55-20.

The Panthers are led by the quarterback-receiver tandem of Conner Manning and Penny Hart. Manning passed for 2,870 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Hart leads the Panthers with 73 receptions, a school-record 1,094 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions. Hart is eighth in the nation in receiving yards (99.5) per game and sees opportunities in Western Kentucky's defense.

"They like to run a little bit of man (coverage), and definitely, with our offense, we like to capitalize that." Hart told reporters earlier in the week.

The Hilltoppers have been stout against the pass, though, allowing just 201.8 yards passing per game and picking off 10 passes this season.

Sanford took over at Western Kentucky this season, after former Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm moved on to Purdue. Sanford spent the last two seasons as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He believes his squad is battle-tested, heading into the bowl game.

"We fully anticipate a roster that's a little rested after a tough run," Samford said. "We play in a conference that has 10 bowl-eligible teams, nine of which were selected. That shows the depth of our league, not just the parity that exists within league week-to-week, but also, if you're in a Group of Five-level conference that has 10 bowl-eligible teams, that means they actually had success outside of the conference, as well."

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