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The Kentucky Wildcats are coming off a rare feel good game, where they handed it to the Kent St. Golden Flashes 47-14 behind a stout passing offense, solid running, an opportunistic forced fumble and a fortuitous safety that sealed the game. The feel good story comes with a huge caveat. All is for naught if Kentucky cannot beat the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers tonight. WKU is 1-1, coming off of a "hard to know what to make of it" 35-0 loss against #1 Alabama. Depending on who you believe, the 'Toppers were either thoroughly outclassed and never a threat, or they showed quite a bit of pluck against the Tide and should now be feared.
I didn't get to see the game, as my tailgate TV failed on me in the blue lot last week. I've gone over the box score with a fine tooth comb, though. There were certainly some positives for Western in the game. Alabama, who did play their starters most of the game, had a difficult time on the ground against WKU. After running all over the Wolverines in week one, the Tide amassed only 103 yards on 31 carries. Alabama punted 5 times, which would be a respectable showing for almost any SEC defense. The 35 points were the result of a very efficient passing game and four WKU turnovers.
Kentucky fans will remember the ill conceived opening game of 2011 against WKU in Nashville, which featured a Morgan Newton self-sack and enough offensive ineptitude to infuriate even the most ardent UK homer. Even though Kentucky won 14-3, I wouldn't take a repeat tonight. I want to see a much better game. After the jump, we'll look at this year's tilt in a little more depth.
When Kentucky has the ball: The Cats have put the team's fate in the hands of sophomore QB Maxwell Smith, who has attempted a Houston Cougar-esque 89 passes in the team's first two games. Through the first two games, the other story of the season has been the emergence of Aaron Boyd, who leads the team with 14 receptions after having only 6 his entire career prior to that. Boyd's transformation highlights the improved play of Kentucky's skill position players. The Cats have had contributions from seven or eight guys this year, after struggling to find anyone to make plays at times last season.
Make no mistake, Western Kentucky has a good defense. They sacked A.J. McCarron six times last week, in addition to the run stuffing. Junior MLB Andrew Jackson was third in the Sun Belt last year with 109 tackles, and has 13 this year. Four of those are for losses, pacing the team. OLB Xavius Boyd also has 13 stops on the year. Ends Quanterus Smith (a second team All-Sun Belt pick in 2011) and Gavin Rocker have five sacks between them.
Expect UK's quick passing, short yardage scheme to negate Western's pass rush to some extent, but don't expect UK (who incidentally will have CoShik Williams back in the lineup) to gain much on the ground. Smith will be icing his elbow again after tonight. Kentucky's offensive line, who have been better than advertised thus far, will have an important job tonight. If Smith can't effectively take a five step drop and have time to throw, the offense could end up a one dimensional series of dinks and dunks.
If last year is any indication, WKU will come out with a chip on its collective shoulder. Willie Taggert has these guys playing with intensity. Kentucky will put up points tonight, but Western isn't going to make it easy or fun.
When Western has the ball: The best news for Kentucky is that RB Bobby Rainey has graduated. The bad news is that Western now has a two headed attack led by 6'0" freshman Leon Allen and its version of Randall Cobb, junior Antonio Andrews. Andrews also catches the ball out of the backfield as well as returning kicks and punts. Three years starter Kawaun Jakes triggers the attack, and has acquitted himself well after a strong finish in 2011. Four starters returned on the offensive line. The truth is, though, it is hard to know exactly what to make of WKU's offense. The team's two opponents this year have been Austin Peay and Alabama, not exactly a great sample with which to predict tonight's performance. Don't expect the 'Toppers to be dominated on this side of the ball, though. For a Sun Belt team, there appears to be a lot to like here.
The same cannot be said for Kentucky's defense. Despite giving up only 14 points to Kent St., the Cats continued to struggle, giving up 187 yards on the ground and taking big gashes up the middle on many plays. Kentucky has attempted to plug holes by moving around personnel. Bud Dupree moves to weak side inside linebacker, a real problem spot, putting Taylor Wyndham into the lineup at hybrid DE/OLB. Expect to see true freshmen J.D. Harmon and Fred Tiller continue to get time at corner as the Cats try to find the right mix in the secondary. WKU's three interior linemen average 308, so Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble will continue to have their hands full. Their play must improve.
Kentucky has forced one turnover and had no interceptions in two games. Western's bugaboo has been turnovers. They have six total, including 2 against Austin Peay. Something has to give tonight. If WKU can hang onto the ball, it should be able to get into the end zone 2-4 times against the Cats. Kentucky needs to be opportunistic tonight. Strip the ball, grab the tipped passes, force Jakes into a bad decision or two. If the Toppers turn the ball over a couple of times, they shouldn't be able to put up more that 14-17 points.
In final analysis, I side with the Cats tonight, but not in a cakewalk. I'll go with UK 28-WKU 17. The Cats could open it up and blow the Hilltoppers out, I just don't think it is likely.