The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have not won a college football game since they downed Murray State, 50-9, on Saturday, September 20, 2008. That season they finished 2-10. Last year they went 0-12 and with their week one loss at No. 8 Nebraska (L, 49-10), they are in the midst of a 21-game losing streak.
Needless to say they come to Lexington on Saturday as big time underdogs.
The Hilltoppers enter the 2010 season with a new coach, new scheme, new everything. In November, Willie Taggart was named head coach at Western Kentucky, after spending three years at Stanford as the running backs coach. He previously spent eight seasons as an assistant coach at WKU from 1999-2006 and served as co-offensive coordinator for WKU’s 2002 I-AA National Championship team. A standout player at quarterback who set 11 school records for the Hilltoppers from 1995-98, Taggart is one of only four players in WKU’s 91-year football history to have his jersey retired.
Much like the Kentucky job is the job Joker Phillips always wanted, the Western job was Taggart’s dream.
For them to have success against Kentucky, and in the Sun Belt conference this season, they are going to have to score points. On offense they have some weapons and their offensive line is solid, but their defense is slow and struggles. To showcase their defensive struggles you merely need to look at a two-game stretch at the end of October last season. On October 24 at Middle Tennessee they allowed 62 points in a 62-24 loss and then followed that up the next week by allowing North Texas to pop off with 68 points in a 68-49 shootout. That’s 130 points in two games. On average teams scored 40 points against them last season.
They can move the football, however, and last week Nebraska got a little taste of that despite their easy win. Junior tailback Bobby Rainey rushed 30 times for a career-high 155 yards and a touchdown against the Cornhuskers, a defensive unit that was ninth nationally against the run last season.
Rainey (5-7, 196) is out of Grffin, GA, and last season he fell just short of 1,000 yards, with 939. He is a speedster out of the backfield and could possibly be the fastest guy that UK faces this year. A lot of his carries will come out of spread and you could see Taggart line him up in the Wildcat formation as well. This kid is an SEC caliber back who got looks from Steve Spurrier at USC and some Big Ten schools out of high school. Not only he is fast, but he has great lateral movement and the shiftiness to miss tackles. He is also a very powerful back for his size.
This team rushed for 179 yards total against Nebraska’s tough run defense and the Wildcats allowed 190 rushing yards against Louisville. So, containing Rainey will be an early test for a young defensive line that will be without Mark Crawford, who is being suspended for one game for breaking team rules. Freshman Donte Rumph will be forced to step up and plug gaps while the linebackers and safeties will have to do a better job of getting in there and making tackles. Kentucky’s safeties are fast, but Winston Guy has never been looked at as a tremendous tackler. You don’t want your safeties doing the tackling in the running game, but Guy and Mychal Bailey need to be up to the task if Rainey gets to the third level to prevent long runs and easy scores.
Quarterback Kawaun Jakes is also a threat to run for the Hilltoppers and we all know about Kentucky’s struggles with running passers. Jakes (6-3, 190) is a sophomore out of Saint Augustine, FL, who completed 60-percent of his passes and threw for 1,516 yards as a freshman. He also ran for 362 yards.
Last week in the opener against Nebraska, he completed 12-of-22 passes for 120 yards and threw one incerception. He didn’t do any damage on the ground.
Kentucky has to keep Jakes in the pocket and force him to be a passer. They do not want to allow him to get to the outside and have that run-pass option.
If the Wildcats can build a lead they will force Western to rely more on their passing game, which they don’t want to do. They want to give the ball to Rainey and slow the game down. If they are behind big on the scoreboard that won’t be an option.
On the other side of the ball the Kentucky offense should have a field day so it shouldn’t be a problem getting out in front. The ‘Toppers do not have the talent on the defensive side to hang with guys like Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. If the Wildcats avoid mistakes, they will score.
Mistakes are about the only thing that can keep Western in this thing, even if Rainey has success on the ground. Last week they forced Nebraska into two turnovers. Two turnovers weren’t enough to hang with the Cornhuskers and it won’t be enough to hang with Kentucky, either. Still, you look at the two upsets last week, in Jacksonville State over Ole Miss and North Dakota State over Kanas, and turnovers played a huge part.
We’ll find something out about Kentucky’s defense against Rainey and the Western ground attack, but I don’t see the ‘Toppers hanging in their for long.
Kentucky 49, Western 17