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Western Kentucky vs. Wisconsin: What to know about the Hilltoppers

Our Q&A with Underdog Dynasty.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Georgia State vs Western Kentucky Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers welcome Conference USA member Western Kentucky to Camp Randall Stadium for a Friday evening match-up on Aug. 31.

The Hilltoppers enter their second season under head coach Mike Sanford. Gone is quarterback Mike White, who started 42 games in his career. WKU’s offense tallied 335 yards per game through the air last year—tied for seventh-best in the FBS—though its rushing attack was among the worst in the nation (60.8 yards per contest). The offensive line gave up 48 sacks last year as well, good for 129th in the FBS

On the opposite side of the ball, Western Kentucky’s defense last year gave up nearly 27 points per game, along with 170 yards rushing and 207 yards passing to its opponents.

With a new year and a different variation of players to mold, however, hope springs eternal, even if WKU takes on a top-five squad in Madison to kick off Labor Day weekend.

Underdog Dynasty’s Joe Londergan gives B5Q the scoop on the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky went 6-6 last season, including a 4-4 record inside Conference USA. This year’s team has only 10 seniors on its roster, which is the third-fewest in the nation. What is the general feeling about Mike Sanford’s squad heading into year two?

In all honesty, I look at Western Kentucky football and think, “this team’s going to be really year.” Like you mentioned, they’re a really young team and it didn’t help that WKU lost several guys due to grad transfers that would have been starters on this year’s team. Center Dennis Edwards (now at Purdue) and punter Jake Collins (now at Northwestern) immediately come to mind. But wideout Lucky Jackson and some of the defensive backs (who I’ll get to in a second) are still around and are worth keeping an eye on this year. But Sanford’s recruited pretty well, in my opinion, bringing in a four-star quarterback like Kevaris Thomas and several interesting running backs. So I think they’re moving in the right direction after a combination of unlucky injuries and guys adjusting to the differences between Sanford and Jeff Brohm contributed to their less-than-impressive record in 2017.

Last season, the Hilltoppers averaged 335 yards per game through the air, tied for seventh best in the nation but was tied for 87th in scoring offense (25.5 points per game). Quarterback Mike White is gone, with redshirt senior Drew Eckels starting his first career game. What should Wisconsin fans expect from this offense, and who are the playmakers?

As far as last year’s offense goes, I put a lot of the blame for the lack of points on the abysmal performance of the offensive line. The Tops had the fewest rushing yards in the nation in 2017, zero running plays that went for more than twenty yards, and had one of the highest sack totals in FBS. It’s awfully hard to score points when your playmakers have no room to work.

With this year’s team, I like Eckels, but I don’t expect him to be the starter all year. We’ll see some of Steven Duncan, who’s suspended for a DUI right now, along with the young guys Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas. Shanley and Thomas especially are a little more mobile, which works better for the offenses Sanford has had historically (see Deshone Kizer at Notre Dame). I mentioned Jackson who has the speed to be a legit deep threat and Xavier Lane also had some solid flashes in the passing game last year. Keep an eye on tight end Mik’Quan Deane as well, who I believe has the physical tools to be one of C-USA’s breakout players this season the way Deon Yelder, his predecessor, was in 2017. At any rate, expect this offense to try to have a pretty balanced attack, but because of inexperience on the offensive line and the Tops facing some great d-lines this season (the Badgers included, of course), their best bet for success is a lot of quick/short pass plays with the occasional deep ball.

Based on the game notes received, it appears WKU runs a 4-2-5 defense with the most experienced players returning in Drell Greene and Devon Key. What could the strengths of this defense be, and where do you feel Wisconsin find some holes?

Yep, the 4-2-5 came over with defensive coordinator Clayton White from NC State. Key and Greene are both really important to the defense but don’t forget about the senior corner and team captain DeAndre Farris. He led the team in pass breakups last year with 14. Overall, the Tops were seventh and eighth in the league, respectively last year in points allowed and yards allowed, which I think was a combination of adjustting to the 4-2-5 switch and the front seven getting obliterated by injuries. I like the defensive back corps after they allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in C-USA last season, but I admit they have aways to go.

Frankly, if Wisconsin’s offensive line plays the way I expect them too, they will control the run game all night. This defensive line is inexperienced and most of them are coming off of injuries. Our linebackers (Ben Holt, Masai Whyte, and Kentucky transfer Eli Brown) are tough, but I wouldn’t call them elite talents like last year’s star Joel Iyiegbuniwe, now with the Bears.

Where do you feel WKU could give Wisconsin problems, and what is your score prediction?

I think Wisconsin is the superior team here in a lot of ways. Something I could see though is one of our young quarterbacks ripping off a few big-yardage plays in garbage time though. Like I mentioned at the start, I think this team is going to be really good eventually, but unfortunately for me and WKU fans, I think we’re outmatched here.

48-10 Wisconsin wins.