Is anyone else concerned about this child?
It is finally upon us. The summer months have slowly dragged on, devoid of any relief for Wildcat fans. In just two days, Kentucky will take the field for the debut of the Mark Stoops era. And though coaches have attempted to temper enthusiasm with talk of limited depth and talent on the roster, the fan base is nonetheless almost giddy at what appears to be the dawn of a new age of Kentucky football. As for us at KSR, after a summer’s worth of posts analyzing the Kentucky roster and dissecting what little news filtered in, we now get the chance to look ahead to an actual opponent. This week, we delve into the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
THE HEAD MAN:
While his overall life-skills could clearly use some work, Bobby Petrino’s football acumen cannot be rationally challenged. At both Louisville and Arkansas, Petrino used his high octane offense to elevate two otherwise pedestrian programs to national prominence. In perhaps his most impressive achievement, Petrino led both the Cardinals and the Razorbacks, two programs languishing in relative obscurity at the time of his arrival, to BCS Bowl games. Now, after a brief hiatus stemming from Bobby’s efforts to turn his life into a Sons of Anarchy episode, Petrino will attempt to perform the same transformation at Western Kentucky.
Petrino is a dangerous adversary in any circumstance, but as Kentucky football fans know all too well, he is especially tough in season openers. In fact, Petrino is a perfect 8-0 in openers in his collegiate coaching career. Petrino’s head coaching debut took place in Commonwealth Stadium in 2003. In this opener against the much more experienced Rich Brooks (understatement), Petrino began to earn his reputation both as a master tactician and an ego-maniacal jerk. Petrino and the Cards held a slim 26-24 lead after three quarters, but scored again early in the fourth to take a 9 point lead. After stopping Kentucky’s final offensive threat, the Cards had to simply run out the clock to secure the Governor’s Cup victory. Instead, with just 6 seconds left, and the game already in hand, Petrino called a timeout to tack-on one final score from the two yard line. When asked after the game why he would coordinate such a bush league move, Petrino replied that he wanted to “put 40 on them.” That 2003 game is really a good summary of Petrino as a person and football coach: clearly gifted, but personally flawed.
TOPPERS TO WATCH:
As of game-time on Saturday, it is likely that the three top pro prospects on the field will all be wearing red. (I expect that to change by the end of the season, by the way.) Western’s roster includes three players who have all received major attention from NFL scouts. If Western upsets the Cats again, it will be because of these players.
Antonio Andrews: In 2012, this former Kentucky Mr. Football quietly had one of the greatest seasons in the history of college football. Andrews’ season total of 3161 all purpose yards ranks second in the history of college football, behind only Barry Sanders. Andrews rushed for 1728 yards and 15 touchdowns. He torched Kentucky with three touchdowns, and threw the game winning two-point conversion pass as well. Never offered a scholarship by the Cats despite his 29-0 record and two state championships as quarterback for Ft. Campbell, Andrews is quickly becoming the football equivalent of Chris Lofton for Kentucky fans who wonder what might have been had Andrews worn the blue and white.
Andrew Jackson: Jackson is a huge, but active middle linebacker, weighing in at 257 pounds. Last season, he recorded 122 tackles, to include 17.5 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. He is also not bashful. He was quoted on Wednesday as saying the following about Saturday’s match-up with the Cats: “I don’t care anything about them. We’re going to handle them on Saturday.” Jackson also promised that the Toppers were “just going to hit them in the mouth and get it over with.” Jackson reportedly made similar remarks just prior to facing the British in New Orleans in 1814.
Jonathan Dowling: Dowling is one of a few talented transfers on the Western roster. This big safety (6-3, 198) was a four star prospect out of the state of Florida who began his career as a Gator before transferring to Western. Dowling recorded 68 tackles last season along with six interceptions. Interestingly, the Cats were responsible for one-half of that interception total, as Dowling intercepted Max Smith three times last fall.
WHY THE CATS WILL PREVAIL:
We get it Western fans. The Toppers beat the Cats in 2012. Let’s analyze that for a moment, though. In a game in which Kentucky threw four interceptions, our worst team in two decades lost to your best team ever in overtime on a trick play. Let that sink in a minute, and think about the likelihood that history repeats itself in 2013. If that does not satisfy you, here are five other reasons why the Cats will beat the Toppers Saturday night.
1. Quarterback Questions
When the Toppers take their first offensive snap, they will turn to junior Brandon Doughty. Doughty has one career start under his belt, and I don’t think it is being overly negative to say it did not go well. He made it just three plays before tearing his ACL. Last season, he was the Toppers third string quarterback, and attempted only three passes all season. That lack of experience will prove costly as Bud, Za’Darius and company introduce themselves to Doughty on Saturday night.
2. Square Peg, round hole
As indicated above, Petrino is very good in opening games. However, this Western team will be attempting a significant transformation in terms of style of play from last season. This may well make initial success difficult, even for as highly regarded an X and O man as Bobby Petrino. Under Willie Taggart, Western employed a smash-mouth running style Taggart learned as an assistant to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Western ran the ball 60% of the time in 2012. Though Petrino has had some excellent rushing teams, there is no doubt that he desires a pro-style passing attack. With a new quarterback, and a seemingly underwhelming crop of receivers, it may take some time before Petrino can successfully transform his program’s offensive identity. There is historical precedent for this argument as well. In Petrino’s eight years as a college head coach, only one team really struggled offensively; his 2008 Arkansas Razorbacks. Much like his current situation at Western, Petrino’s 2008 Arkansas team was attempting to transition from a run-based attack to a pass-based offense with a less than stellar quarterback. In doing so, that Arkansas team actually regressed to a 5-7 record after going 8-5 the previous year under Houston Nutt. That transitional Arkansas team averaged just 22 points per game compared to Petrino’s career average of 39 per game. This year’s Hilltoppers may face similar growing pains.
3. Vulnerable Defensive Front
Western has a very solid back seven defensively. In fact, they return all of their starting linebackers and defensive backs. However, they must replace their entire defensive line. The starting defensive front will be inexperienced and slight. Western will start a redshirt freshman at defensive tackle. The starting defensive ends are 6-1, 233 and 6-2, 230 respectively. Though Kentucky is not a necessarily a running team, Neal Brown will certainly attempt to take advantage of Kentucky’s huge size advantage at the point of attack. Last season, Western’s defensive line really controlled the line of scrimmage against Kentucky. I do not expect that to be the case on Saturday.
4. Western is not the 1985 Bears
To hear Western fans talk this off-season, you would think Western Kentucky was on the verge of overtaking Alabama as the dynastic force in college football. While it is true they were likely better than Kentucky in 2012, let’s not get carried away. Western went to a Bowl Game in 2012, but also lost games to such football powerhouses as Louisiana Monroe, Middle Tennessee State, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Lafayette and Central Michigan. Would their record have looked much different than Kentucky’s had they played an SEC schedule?
Regardless of their self-serving spin about second chances and Bobby’s new-found perspective on life, the Western Kentucky athletics department sold its soul to hire a mercenary coach who has repeatedly proven himself to be utterly devoid of any character. From calling timeouts to run up the score, to reneging on scholarship offers, to conducting secret airplane runway job interviews, to quitting on an NFL team mid-season, to lying to an employer about an affair with a woman who he helped hire, Petrino has shown his stripes in every conceivable way. I truly do not believe that the football gods will permit him to parlay his latest misdeed into a triumphant victory over the Cats.
See you in Nashville. Go Cats.