Last Saturday’s game saw Kentucky even their record to .500 on the young season with a 47-14 victory over Kent State. The match-up showed that the improvement from last season’s offensive performance were no fluke as Maxwell Smith and company torched Kent State’s defense for 6 touchdowns and 539 total yards. While offensively Kentucky performed rather well, the defense clearly has some work to do as Rick Minter’s inexperienced bunch allowed a grand total of 409 yards and two 25+ yard runs which both went for touchdowns. This Saturday’s home game features intrastate rival Western Kentucky with their up-and-coming head coach Willie Taggart. Western enters the game with a 1-1 record, coming off a blowout loss from the Alabama Crimson Tide. Despite last weekend’s 35-0 decimation from the almighty hands of
Darth Nick Saban, the Hilltoppers do many things well and will present some challenges to Kentucky on both sides of the ball come Saturday.
The most difficult challenge presenting itself is the concern of Western’s efficient passing attack. On the season, Senior Quarterback Kawaun Jakes, is averaging 9.1 yards per passing attempt (16th nationally) and even managed a respectable 5.7 YPA on Alabama’s stellar defense. He has also tossed 4 touchdowns and completed 69% of his passes which ranks him 25th nationally. Jakes has been able to accomplish these feats mainly due to his experienced Offensive Line which returned 4 of 5 starters, including Center Sean Conway and Right Guard Adam Smith who were named First Team All-Sun Belt by Athlon Sports. While the Hilltopper passing attack has posted good numbers they do have their share of issues, one in particular being Interception Percentage. Last season Western tossed 13 picks on 301 attempts (4.3%) which was significantly higher than the FBS average of 2.9%. In fact, it was so high they ranked 113th nationally in this category. This season has seen the Toppers improve slightly, but Taggart’s offense has still tossed 2 picks on 58 attempts (3.4%), which places them 96th nationally. For Kentucky to come out victorious Saturday, our young secondary must build upon the improved performance it experienced against Kent State.
An area that may appear deceptive when examining Western’s season statistics is their defense. So far this year they rank 12th nationally in total defense, allowing only 241 yards per game. But when you delve a bit deeper you realize this is due to two simple reasons, strength of opponent and pace of play. In their first game of the season Western played an outmatched Austin Peay team who could only muster 154 yards of total offense, and in last weeks match-up with Alabama there were only 11 possessions total for both teams (very much below the national average of 13). So even though Alabama thoroughly outclassed Western the basic numbers won’t recognize that. The numbers that will recognize Western’s defensive ability are yards per attempt data and turnover percentage. So far this season, the Hilltoppers are tied for 92nd nationally in defensive yards per passing attempt with 7.6, T-58th nationally in rushing yards per carry at 3.62, and have forced interceptions on 3.3% of pass attempts which places them 41st nationally. So while their basic total defense numbers indicate that they’re an elite defensive team, in reality they’re a very average defensive team who has individual strengths and weaknesses like any other squad.
If you’re curious, Vegas sees Kentucky as 4.5-7 point favorites according to your individual preference on bookmaker (not that we condone that type of thing), so this game should be winnable for Joker’s ‘Cats. The Toppers have a very suspect pass defense which should allow for Maxwell Smith and company to continue their upward tick. Cause for concern comes with Western’s efficient passing game as they are ranked near the top of FBS in almost every passing statistic. If our defense can improve at a rapid pace then I feel very good about Kentucky’s chances come Saturday, but if the offense struggles or our defense reverts to their Louisville game ability, it could get competitive.