The time has come to take a look at the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, the season-opening foe of the Kentucky Wildcats. The game will be held in Nashville at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, and only one hour from the teeming metropolis of Bowling Green, a town with which I have been intimately familiar during my days at WKU.
One of the problems with trying to do a pregame for this particular contest is that both teams have completely new coaching staffs. Willie Taggart was hired away from Western by the University of South Florida, and Bobby Petrino was hired to replace him. At Kentucky, Joker Phillips was given his pink slip over an embarrassment of a 2-10 season, and Mark Stoops hired to replace him.
What we can do, however, is look at generalities from their last jobs, and see what we can uncover. But first, we'll look at coaches, then personnel, then what to expect.
Mark Stoops, as the former defensive coordinator at Florida St. where he had multiple highly ranked defenses, is a defense-first coach. His base defensive set is the 4-3, although he has packages featuring three down linemen for special situations. This defense requires less talented personnel and is less complicated to learn than the Rick Minter 3-4, which by any measure, was a dismal failure at UK.
Bobby Petrino is his opposite number at Western. We're not going to talk about the UK-Petrino flirtation (it was mostly Petrino doing the flirting, anyway), but rather about what Petrino likes to do. Petrino is a disciple and innovator of what has been come to be called the Power Spread or Power/Spread offense. Generally described, the offense tries to spend about two thirds of the time in a fairly standard one back set with four wide receivers, and about one third of the time running power football out of the power I-formation.
While that may not sound like much of an innovation, the idea is to balance the run and the throw as equally as possible, not in terms of time spent doing them, but in terms of yardage gained. Petrino's offenses at Louisville were famous for their balance, averaging about 250 yards out of the run and out of the pass. Petrino uses the FTS or "feed the studs" philosophy, which is simply the idea that you put the ball in the hands of your most dangerous offensive players as much as possible.
Petrino's offense is not that much different from the air raid that Neal Brown is trying to establish at Kentucky. Both emphasize the run more than traditional spread offenses, and both are run mostly out of the shotgun formation. While Brown has the personnel to utilize the pistol formation more (a variation of the shotgun where the quarterback is only four yards, rather than six or seven, behind the line), Petrino does not, at least not to any great effect.
The advantage of the pistol is that by being closer to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback is in a better position to make himself a running threat, and when combined with read option, which is a staple of the Air Raid system, you can create a very dangerous option offense. Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers is well known for using this formation to great effect.
How They Got Here
Recruiting-wise Western recruits at a different level than Kentucky. Over the last four years, Western as added mostly Rivals.com 2-star players at a rough clip of 70% 2-star or below, and 30% 3-star. They haven't recruited any 4-star players or above. That is solid recruiting for a Sun Belt team that has only been a full member of the FBS since 2009.
Despite what you may think about Joker Phillips, he was a solid recruiter at Kentucky. No, he wasn't able to do what Mark Stoops has done, which is to step up the Wildcats' recruiting to a completely different, and much more SEC-like level, but he stocked Kentucky's cubbard with mostly 3-star players and above, to the tune of roughly 85%. So right from the start, the Wildcats have significantly better personnel overall than Western. Kentucky is generally bigger, stronger, and faster than the Hilltoppers at any given position.
Because of its better personnel, Kentucky has players that fit Mark Stoops' concepts than Bobby Petrino has at his disposal. That is not an unfamiliar position for Petrino, though, and one of the reasons he is such a good coach is that, like John Calipari in basketball, he isn't wedded to his innovation to the extent that he won't utilize his personnel to the best advantage. If Western is best set up as a running team, and they are, Petrino will be run-heavy this year. But the overarching concept of balance between the pass and run is what drives Petrino's thinking.
Western has a more experienced group coming back with roughly half his team having been at Western for 3 years or more. Western also did a great job with redshirts, which gives the less talented players more time to develop. At least half of every class of Western's players are redshirts, which is a near-ideal mix for a non-BCS FBS program.
Kentucky's advantage is that, despite its youth compared to the Hilltoppers, they have athletic and size advantages at most positions over their Western counterparts. For example, Western only has one defensive lineman at 300+#, where Kentucky enjoys 4 at that level. On the offensive line, Kentucky has only three sub-300# players, where Western has ten. The Western O-line and D-line are going to be at a significant size disadvantage, and that will matter as the game wears on.
In keeping with Bobby Petrino's "feed the studs" philosophy, let's look at who the studs are for both teams on each side of the ball. These are the names you should expect to hear called a lot on Saturday.
Western Kentucky Offense
Last season: WKU's offense was ranked #70 in scoring, #44 rushing, #92 passing and #75 in total offense last season. Bobby Petrino's system will change a lot of that, once it takes hold, but last year's Hilltoppers were anything but an offensive powerhouse.
The downside is that Petrino's system isn't simple, and at his previous stops, has taken time to work. If that happens to Western on Saturday and they fail to execute the offense, it could be big trouble for them. Petrino will most likely be very run-heavy in this game until his quarterback and receivers can make his system work, and that is likely to take more than one game.
Antonio Andrews, RB — Andrews is Western's workhorse tailback. At 6'0" and 219#, he is a compact, durable player who, regardless of the foe, fearlessly attacks with the ball in his hands. He rushed for a remarkable 1733 yards last season, and is literally the Randall Cobb of the Hilltoppers when it comes to all-purpose yards — Andrews returns punts and kicks as well.
Andrews is also a solid receiver out of the backfield, racking up 432 yards and 3 touchdowns, good enough for third on the squad.
In addition to the studs, the offensive line returns three starters from last season, including the center, left guard and left tackle. But the right side of the Western line will be brand new.
Western Kentucky Defense
Last season: WKU was #50 in scoring defense, #33 in rushing defense, #34 in passing defense, and #25 in total defense.
Defense was definitely last year's calling card for the Hilltoppers, and it should be no different this year. Western brings back many of their best defensive players behind the defensive line, which will be mostly new. The big difference is that Western racked up its defensive numbers against Sun Belt conference teams, and Kentucky versus the SEC.
Andrew Jackson, ILB — Jackson is the smack-talking, "they supposed to be SEtfC" loudmouth who backs up his trash-talk with a powerful game. Jackson is by far Western's best defensive player, a first team all-conference performer and a senior this year. At 6'1" and 265#, he is a very dangerous player wherever he lines up.
Xavius Boyd, OLB — Boyd is a 6'2", 235# senior who will help anchor the Hilltoppers back seven.
Jonathan Dowling, SS — Dowling is a transfer from the Florida Gators, and had a big year last year with six picks, one for a touchdown. He is a very dangerous player to throw at, and he is only a junior.
Last season: Kentucky was 119th in scoring offense (out of 124), 89th in rushing offense, 106th in passing offense, and 115th in total offense. It was probably the most offensively-challenged football team in Kentucky history. But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Neal Brown's version of the Air Raid is interesting in it's relative balance. While most versions of the Air Raid are very pass-heavy, Browns is significantly less so, and with Kentucky's deep stable of running backs, that's a very good thing.
What is unclear is how much of Brown's system has been effectively installed at this point. Kentucky fans have cause to be optimistic. The problem is, if there is one, that nobody outside the state of Kentucky sees anything but the horror that was last year's team.
Raymond Sanders, RB — Sanders has impressed the coaching staff with his vocal leadership, and when healthy, is very dangerous. Sanders averaged 5.35 yards per attempt last year, first on the team by a significant amount. He also had a pedestrian 18 receptions for 111 yards — certainly not something to make opponents quake. But he can catch the ball, and is very dangerous in space.
Jonathan George, RB — George was used sparingly for most of the season, but really came on in the second half of the campaign. Against the mighty Georgia Bulldogs (one yard away from the BCS championship game last year), George was a one-man wrecking crew, gaining 87 yards for Kentucky at 7.25 YPC clip. He had a similarly good performance against Tennessee, albeit with fewer carries.
George is also a solid receiver, catching 21 passes for 223 yards and a 10.6 yard average last season. That was good enough for 4th on the team.
Darian Miller, LT — as the lone returning starter, Miller is what you need in a blind-side tackle. He will be the guy that keeps the Jadeveon Clowneys of the world off Kentucky's quarterbacks, and he is adequate to the task.
The big question marks for Kentucky are at wide receiver and along the offensive line, although this line is far bigger and stronger than the Hilltoppers will field, and more experienced to boot. Receiver-wise, Kentucky is so unproven that the leading receiver, DeMarco Robinson, had only 28 receptions for 297 yards last year.
Last season: Scoring defense, #86, rushing defense #63, passing defense #58, total defense #60. Kentucky was not all that bad on defense last year — for a Conference USA team. Unfortunately, Kentucky plays in the SEC, and numbers in the 50's and 60's will win precious few, if any, games in the nation's premiere league. Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot expect to change that.
Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, DT — Perhaps no team in the SEC has more pure size inside than Kentucky, with these two men weighing in at a combined 650# or so. They will anchor a run defense that should be significantly improved over next year.
Avery Williamson, LB — Willimson was names to the third-string All-SEC team this season, and was second in the league in tackles last season at 135 total.
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE — A converted linebacker, Dupree moves to the line this year to take care of duties on the edge. Last year, Dupree was everywhere. He was 12th in the SEC in tackles made (91), 10th in tackles for loss (12.5), and 7thin in sacks with 6.5. He will be a force to be reckoned with, and no mistake.
Za'Darius Miller, DE — If you're sensing a theme that Kentucky's front seven is pretty good, you're right. Smith is a JUCO transfer, and has the size, strength and speed to dominate offensive tackles — perhaps not to the extent of a Jadeveon Clowney, but then again, neither will offenses be watching him like they will the Heisman Trophy favorite.
Mark Stoops is a defensive coach, and as a result, you can expect the defense to be more advanced than the offense, especially early in the season. But the big question mark on defense for Kentucky will be in the defensive backfieild, where they are still painfully young and somewhat under-talented. It is a big chink in the armor of the defense that the line will have to mitigate with pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Unlike most, I don't think Western has either the talent or the size to "handle" Kentucky (in the words of Andrew Jackson), and I fully expect Kentucky's new Air Raid attack to put points on the board, early and often. The pace will hurt Western, who gets thin very quickly in rotation, and it's hard to see how they consistently stop the re-energized Wildcats. The Hilltopper defense is very good, and will be excellent early. But Neal Brown's pace will wear them down, and fatigue makes cowards of us all.
Western doesn't have the talent or experience with the offensive system of Petrino to roll down the field on offense, and at every stop, Petrino's teams have struggled early to assimilate and impliment his system. That is unlikely to change at Western, where he has less talent to work with than at any of his previous head coaching stops. Antonio Anderson is an outstanding back, but he'll be running into a line too big for the smaller Hilltopper line to block. Dupree and Williamson are fast enough to stretch him out on the edges, and should be up to the task of containing him.