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W Kentucky Jerreth Sterns

Western Kentucky receiver Jerreth Sterns (8) has an FBS-best 123 receptions for 1,511 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

HUNTINGTON — Practice was not fun during the week following Marshall’s home loss to UAB.

Marshall head coach Charles Huff said he had a very pointed message for his team as it got into preparation for Saturday’s 49-28 win at Charlotte.

Perhaps that is why he was so pleased with the team’s performance in the win over the 49ers.

“They accepted the challenge,” Huff said. “It was a rough week of practice — hard love and hard coaching and hard reality, looking at the film and asking themselves if they take pride in their personal performance.”

Now that the Charlotte challenge is complete, the challenge — and stakes — get bigger this week with Marshall hosting Western Kentucky at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

The winner will earn the Conference USA East title and earn a trip to the C-USA championship game.

Unbeaten UTSA, the West Division champion, has clinched its spot in the title game, which is set for Friday, Dec. 3 at a site to be determined.

Marshall’s goals of a Conference USA championship are within the team’s reach, and the Thundering Herd has done its part to make sure that the opportunity to play in the C-USA championship game comes at home.

However, Marshall (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) also has the vaunted offense of Western Kentucky waiting as its stumbling block from achieving those goals.

Western Kentucky (7-4, 6-1 C-USA) features the nation’s leading passer in quarterback Bailey Zappe, who is throwing for 421.8 yards per game.

The Hilltoppers also feature a Biletnikoff Award candidate in wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, who has an FBS-best 123 receptions — 33 more than the second-ranked player — for 1,511 yards and 12 touchdowns.

It is a one-two punch that will certainly elevate the challenge for Marshall’s conference-leading pass defense, which sputtered in execution a few times against Charlotte with penalties and big plays allowed.

After starting slowly, Marshall was able to execute better from the late portion of the second quarter on, scoring 28 straight points to turn a tie game into a rout.

“Once we got settled down — especially defensively — I thought we did a good job,” Huff said. “We’ve got to get some things cleaned up in the back end.”

The onus on Marshall this week is to not start slowly. Huff is well aware that doing so against Western Kentucky could lead to a quick two-score deficit.

Such was the case last week in the Hilltoppers’ 52-17 win over Florida Atlantic as the Owls struggled out of the gate and could not play catch-up.

Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Western Kentucky took a 21-3 lead when Zappe hit Joey Beljan for a score. Zappe threw for 470 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions in a game that was never really in doubt.

Of those six touchdowns, four came in the first half — all to different receivers — as the Hilltoppers got going early.

Marshall’s hope is that it will have the firepower and defensive strength to stay in the game early before executing late to win the East Division.

To do so, the Herd will have to feature its most complete effort of the year — one that Huff said he’s still waiting to see.

For Huff, that complete effort involves seeing players rotate in and out of the lineup without drop-off in execution or level of play, which has been an issue.

“We’ve got to do a better job of finishing, especially on defense,” Huff said. “When we start rotating some guys in, we’ve got to be better at that if we’re going to continue to move forward.”

Western Kentucky has scored at least 34 points in every game this season, and the Hilltoppers have blistered Conference USA opponents to the tune of 45.1 points per game in league play.

One challenge may have been answered last week in the road win at Charlotte, but a greater one awaits on Saturday.

To be king of the hill in C-USA, Marshall must find a way to outclimb the Hilltoppers.

Grant Traylor is the sports editor of The Herald-Dispatch and covers Marshall athletics for HD Media. Follow him on Twitter @GrantTraylor.