When I went to Western Kentucky University back in 1975-1979 (yes, that was after the Industrial Revolution) it was a much different place than it is now. For one thing, it was a much smaller school. I don't remember the exact enrollment figures, but back when I attended, I believe it was less than half of their current 19,000+ students. Western is now the fastest-growing school in the entire state, enrollment-wise, and has added substantial new construction and modernized almost its entire campus since the halcyon days of my attendance there.
I am still a Hilltoper fan and will forever be one, although I was a UK fan first and more passionately. I remember staggering into the L.T. Smith stadium in the fall with my fraternity brothers (for those who care, my fraternity is Sigma Phi Epsilon), and having a great time. Western was usually very good, even in those days, but WKU played in what I believe was Division II back then.
Then came round about 1993, when only by a slender 1-vote margin was the Western Kentucky football program saved from extinction. That's right, the Board of Regents almost euthanized Western's football team and this story in the WKU Herald tells the tale of how this nearly happened. But didn't, not quite. Now in the second and final year of probation before moving from FCS to a full FBS school, Western's football has gone from near extinction to perhaps its highest point in WKU's history, so far.
By that, I don't mean playing the Kentucky Wildcats. The Toppers have already faced the likes of Florida last year and Alabama this year, so they are no stranger to the biggest, baddest programs. UK will not intimidate the Hilltopers at all. Last year, Western was 7-5, and although they are 2-2 this year (losses to Indiana and Alabama), they will be ready to play in Commonwealth Stadium and fully capable of pulling an upset if UK doesn't take them seriously.
So let's look at some quick stats to see what I mean:
These are all courtesy of cfbstats.com. Now, these rankings only tell a general tale, not the whole story, but they do show us directionally the difference between these two football teams. I have highlighted the big disparities above, and it doesn't take a football fan to notice that UK and WKU are pretty close offensively. It is the defensive side that UK comes out so rosy on, and that by a wide margin. This is nothing new, really, and has been the narrative when talking about the UK football team all year.
One thing we don't take into account here is the strength of schedule. I think it is safe to say that Western has played the tougher opponents so far, although they have fared poorly against the good teams. Kentucky has only played one team that can plausibly be called a "good team," i.e. Louisville, and given the current opinion of the Cardinals, that is stretching the definition quite a bit.
So what should we expect tomorrow? Here are my thoughts on that:
I fully expect Kentucky to finally break out on offense, particularly in the running game. The Toppers are 93rd in the nation in run defense, the sort of ranking Kentucky has had over the last few years, and we all know what that meant when we faced teams like Arkansas and LSU last year as far as giving up running yards.
Another reason I think we will see improvement here is because I expect Kentucky's receiving corps to actually catch some footballs on Saturday, which should force WKU to back off the box a bit and give UK's backs some room. In addition, Garry Williams, the starting left tackle, will be back from arthroscopic knee surgery on Saturday, and that should help shore up the interior line even more. Plus, I expect Brooks and Phillps to take a few more shots at the edges, and I believe Kentucky can shine there.
Hartline needs to show that he can throw the ball vertically, and the receivers need to show that they can catch it. If that happens, this UK team could eventually become very dangerous. If it does not, we could see another game where UK has trouble scoring in the red zone, something the 'Cats haven't struggled with for a long time.
This isn't a make-or-break game for Hartline since Cobb is not likely to return for at least another 2 weeks and maybe longer, and Fidler is just not ready to step in and take over for him. So right now, there is no quarterback controversy -- Hartline is the man, and he needs to make the most of it.
UK lost two starters last game on defense, and both Lupkin and Micah Johnson will remain out this game with high ankle sprains. I understand both are coming along well, and there is a reasonable chance they will both be available for Alabama, although that is by no means a foregone conclusion. The loss of these guys will be felt, although I think no so much against Western as against Alabama, if they are unable to go next weekend.
Despite the fact that the Hilltoppers run the dreaded Spread Option offense which gave Kentucky fits early in the MTSU game, I think the 'Cats will be more prepared this time. UK must learn how to handle speedy backs and receivers inside a bubble of space, and against MTSU, Steve Brown went to a one and two-linebacker package that seemed to slow down that offense quite a lot when he figured out a 4-3 look just wasn't going to work. Obviously, against a team with more accomplished running backs that is not likely to work as well, but you have to take advantage of what your opponent gives you. Still, UK can't afford to let Western's speedy players get isolated in a bubble of space against linebackers -- that's what often leads to big plays. There has to be enough speed behind the line of scrimmage to keep those guys from breaking big yards after catches on the quick slants and dumps to receivers or running backs.
Kentucky has some SO experience now, so hopefully they will be ready for the mismatches it tries to create. It will demand a strong, intelligent game from the defensive line and a lot of focus from the defensive backs, but Brooks has added the highly intelligent Matt Lentz to the starting lineup at strong safety, and he should be better than most at reading the Spread Option before it can get mismatches. Lentz could have a big impact on this game if he does what Brooks thinks he can.
With the exception of field goal kicking, the Wildcats have played excellent special teams football this year. Nobody has broken a big return against UK, and Tydlacka has been one of the best pooch-punters in the league. Tydlacka will also be taking over the the field goal duties from Lones Seiber this week, and I sure hope we see an improvement over the MTSU game. Kentucky has had problems scoring touchdowns in the red zone all year, and if they are going to be successful, the 'Cats must make field goals.
On kickoffs and long punts, I expect Tim Masthay to be a weapon, just as he has been all year.
Overall, I don't expect the Hilltoppers to come in to Commonwealth Stadium and pull off an upset unless Kentucky just fails to fire, and that is sometimes possible after a bye week, particularly early in the game. The 'Cats need to get some quick points on the board and demonstrate the defensive dominance that has defined the season to this point. WKU will play will the abandon of a team who has nothing to lose, and a team like that almost stole a game from UK two weeks ago.