College football is officially underway, and we are a little more than 24 hours away from kickoff of the Wildcats season. That means it’s time for the opponent scouting report. This is part three of a three-part weekly series that will come to you every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of a game week. Wednesdays are the historical flashback, Thursdays are head-to-head team stats, and Fridays are a more detailed look at player analysis and matchups of that week’s opponent.
This is the inaugural set of these weekly posts, so I am still working out the kinks. If you have suggestions on what you would like to see, let me know.
Western Kentucky head coach Bobby Petrino has never lost a season opening game in his career, boasting a perfect 8-0 mark, including 4-0 against Kentucky during his time at Louisville. High standards. Furthermore, the season opening game for WKU is traditionally a monumental one for the outcome of the entire season. All-time the Hilltoppers are 55-33-5 in season openers, and in 46 of the 55 years, WKU has finished .500 or better. This was already a big game for those fans down in Bowling Green, but it seems like that just made it a whole lot bigger.
Antonio Andrews (RB) — Listed among the Paul Hornug Award watch list, the Maxwell Award watch list, the Doak Walker Award watch list, and the Walter Camp Award watch list, Andrews is one of the better players on Western Kentucky’s team, and in the entire Sun Belt Conference. Named a Preseason All-SBC player as a running back and kick returner, Andrews will be called upon early and often against the Cats.
With fresh faces at the quarterback and No. 1 wide out positions, the passing game looks to be the weaker link of the two offensive attacks. And because Andrews led WKU in all-purpose yards in his junior year (3,161), along with rushing yards (1,728), touchdowns (15), scoring (90), and carries (304), it seems obvious he will be the focal point. To put those 3,161 all-purpose yards into perspective, that is the second-most in NCAA history just behind 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, only by a little more than 80 yards. Petrino is known for his signature “Feed The Stud” style of offense, and in this case it is easily Andrews.
Andrew Jackson (LB) — On the Bednarik Award watch list, the Bronko Nagurski Award watch list, The Butkis Award watch list, the Rotary Lombardi Award watch list, and named the 2013 Sun Belt Conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Andrew Jackson is the key cog on the Hilltoppers defense.
In total, the WKU defense returns eight starters that was a solid 40 fewer yards per game better than the next closest Sun Belt unit in 2012. In addition to Jackson in the middle, strong side linebacker Xavius Boyd can hold his own and will have the Wildcats passing game in fits if the UK O-line can’t figure it out.
Jonathan Dowling (S) — A former four-star Florida Gators recruit who had offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, you name it, wound up at Western Kentucky after being kicked off the Florida team by Urban Meyer in late 2010. He appeared in two games for UF as a freshman before he was dismissed for “violating team rules.” Now he is an elite safety, and one that collected three interceptions against Kentucky last year.
If not for Jackson, Dowling would be making most of the headlines for the WKU defense. His ball hawking abilities have not diminished playing at a lower-profile school. His six interceptions in 2012 ranked him fifth in the country, adding to the Hilltoppers 13 total by the secondary.
Sean Conway (OL) — Named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, Conway is the “Andrew Jackson” of the offense. With 37 career starts, he is the most veteran player on the offensive line, and outside left guard Luis Polanco who has started 24 games for the Tops, the rest of the unit has combined for just 30 total.
The WKU O-line will have their hands full with Bud Dupree, Za’Darius Smith, Mister Cobble, and Donte Rumph. The right side of the WKU line looks to be the weakest, if experience has anything to say about it. That means the blitzing packages of UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot should be going through the right side a lot, whether that is strong side or weak side.
WHO GETS BEAT AND WHERE
Kentucky: For the Wildcats, the offense will attack a weak Hilltoppers defensive line. The four down linemen for WKU share just nine starts in their careers combined; as a freshman and a sophomore line up at tackle, and another sophomore is down on one end. Whether the Cats are busting holes for Raymond Sanders in the running game, or allowing a tight end or running back to slip out as a receiver instead of pass protect, exploiting the Tops D-line will be crucial to moving the chains for UK.
A base 4-3 defense is what Western will run out, but because of the Air Raid threat, defensive coordinator Nick Holt will likely be playing a host of extra defensive backs to defend against the deep pass. Because of that, the running game becomes even more important. If you can’t move the ball on the ground, sending out extra pass defenders becomes an easy choice. But keep the ground and pound moving forward, and all of the sudden the the deep ball comes back into play.
On the defensive side for UK, it’s all running game based. Until the Tops sophomore quarterback Brandon Doughty proves he can beat you through the air, the focus should be primarily on Antonio Andrews. Expect when he doesn’t receive the ball in the backfield, that he will be on the receiving end of short passes in space, in an effort to create something out of nothing. Open field tackles have been a bane on the UK defense in the past, and if it continues to be an issue in this one, than Andrews may just break one wide open.
Western Kentucky: It seems counterintuitive, but if Western wants to have any success moving the ball, it will have to open up the passing game. Unproven quarterback and all, Petrino knows how big and beefy the UK defensive front is, and the kind of speed out on the ends. Andrews will pick up decent yardage, but non-stop keys on the running back will make the play calling easy for the Cats. The Hilltoppers must pick apart the Cats secondary that is the thinnest unit on the field. If it can do that consistently, the Wildcats might be in trouble if Andrews turns it up a notch.
All indications are that both Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow will be featured at quarterback, but Jonathan Schuette predicts Whitlow will get the majority of the snaps, thanks in large part to the read-option playmaking ability, and giving the team the best chance to win against the WKU defense. If that is the case, the Tops will be forced to play a lot of zone in the flats in an effort to contain the quarterback. The Wildcats offense may attack middle linebacker Andrew Jackson early to get him thinking on instinct and first move, and then drop in play action or a zone read later down the line for a big gain. If WKU wants to have success against Whitlow it will need to stay home and let the play come to them.