No. 85: Western Kentucky
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 7, 2012
Sometime between questioning Kentucky’s manhood and losing by 30 points at home to Indiana State, the Hilltoppers learned how to play a little football. No, that’s not right. Western Kentucky’s growth didn’t occur overnight, all of a sudden, as a result of one momentum-changing win or loss. The program’s growth dates back to its first practice under Willie Taggart more than two years ago – exact date: March, 23, 2010 – and last year’s torrid finish merely represents the end result of many days and weeks in search of a winning formula. Taggart and the Hilltoppers have found the key. It goes a little something like this: run the football. That’s it. Gloriously simple, this, and wonderfully easy to follow. Just run, eroding away at the will of the opposition while keeping your defense off the field. While Sun Belt foes like Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette made noise by reinventing the wheel, W.K.U. took a page out of a decades-old playbook. Beauty points don’t matter when you’ve lost 32 of your last 36 games.
Bowling Green, Ky.
16 (9 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
at Arkansas St.
- Oct. 11
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 1
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
How good can this team be? I think W.K.U. could go 5-7, winning four games in the Sun Belt, though that’s on the upper end for victories. It’s more likely that the Hilltoppers are good enough to win three games in the Sun Belt, which in addition to a win over Indiana State would leave the team with an F.B.S.-best four wins. Progress? You better believe it. T is without question the program’s best team on the F.B.S. ranks, and will exhibit growth in 2011. Bottom line: I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hilltoppers go 2-10 again, as the team still isn’t that talented, or deep, or experienced; at the same time, I would be surprised but not altogether shocked to see W.K.U. factor in the Sun Belt race.
In a nutshell The Hilltoppers matched the program’s combined win total over the last three years by the end of October, exceeded that total one week into November and, all told, closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games. All that kept Western Kentucky home from bowl play was a pesky tie-in, which left the Sun Belt’s second-place team home during the postseason while a team like U.C.L.A., or even a team like Louisiana-Lafayette, went in its stead. That’s the only blemish on an otherwise dream season – though there was that home loss to Indiana State, which continues to stand out. The Hilltoppers got it done on the ground, averaging 202.1 rushing yards per game during Sun Belt play and 210.3 yards per game over the season’s second half. W.K.U. also averaged 135.0 rushing yards per game against SEC competition, earning 129 tough yards in Baton Rouge; this was the second-highest total that L.S.U. would allow during the regular season. The running game kept an uneven defense off the field, which in turn allowed W.K.U. to weather the storm during Sun Belt play. More often than not, the Hilltoppers simply wore down the opposition.
High point A 43-23 home win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 22. This was the Hilltoppers’ season in a nutshell: W.K.U. couldn’t do anything on defense, giving up 540 yards and 22 first downs despite maintaining possession for nearly 36 minutes, but was able to keep the Ragin’ Cajuns at bay with a punishing running game. The Hilltoppers scored six touchdowns; five came on scoring plays of five yards or less, each on the ground.
Low point Western Kentucky’s 26-22 loss to Arkansas State on Oct. 1 didn’t seem big at the time. Two months later, the loss cost W.K.U. the Sun Belt crown – not to mention a bowl bid. The Hilltoppers led by 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter; gave up nine unanswered points to fall behind by 19-14; scored a touchdown to retake the lead, 22-19; but allowed A.S.U. to post the winning score with 42 seconds left.
Tidbit The Hilltoppers’ win over Louisiana-Lafayette snapped one of the most ignominious losing streaks in major college football: the victory was W.K.U.’s first at home in 18 tries, a stretch dating back to a 50-9 win over Murray State on Sept. 20, 2008. The win doubled as W.K.U.’s first at home against an F.B.S. foe since the program began its transition up to the F.B.S. level in 2008; after last season, the Hilltoppers home record since the start of the 2008 season stands at 4-18.
Tidbit (Rainey edition) Bobby Rainey, the Hilltoppers’ unquestioned star over the last three years, led the nation in carries as a junior (340) and senior (369). In 2010, Rainey’s workload exceeded the total of one team, Hawaii. In 2011, his 369 carries were more than the total for eight teams: Hawaii, Oregon State, Arizona, Central Michigan, Troy, S.M.U., San Jose State and Duke. Rainey’s carries in 2010 and 2011 would have led the N.F.L., with his 369 carries as a senior 26 more than Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who paced the N.F.L. with 343.
Former players in the N.F.L.
1 RB Bobby Rainey (Baltimore).
Arbitrary top five list
Topps baseball sets, 1986-91
Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky ’98), 9-15 after two seasons. Taggart returned to W.K.U. as a former player – a program great, in fact – and a former assistant. This type of familiarity with a program, its fan base and its yearly expectations placed Taggart well ahead of the curve of the typical first-time head coach on the F.B.S. level. He set a handful of school records as a quarterback at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, playing under W.K.U. coaching legend Jack Harbaugh. He joined Harbaugh’s staff immediately after exhausting his eligibility, spending the 1999 season as the wide receivers coach. Over the next seven seasons Taggart coached the quarterbacks (2000-6) and served as both the co-offensive coordinator (2001-2) and assistant head coach (2003-6). The Hilltoppers did not suffer a losing season during Taggart’s time as an assistant, winning at least eight games every year from 2000-4 and the F.C.S. national championship in 2002. He was hired away from W.K.U. by Stanford and Jim Harbaugh – Jack’s son – in 2007 to be the Cardinal’s running backs coach. Taggart was instrumental in orchestrating two of the most prolific rushing attacks in program history from 2008-9, and helped Stanford’s Toby Gerhart finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2009. His experience and level of success on the B.C.S. conference level only increased his appeal to the university, which was able to hit upon not only a young, energetic coach with an impressive resume, but one with a built-in comfort level in his new position. Two years later, it’s clear that W.K.U. made an inspired hire.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Western Kentucky made one coaching move, with former Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan, a graduate assistant last fall, moving up to quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator to replace former offensive coordinator Zach Azzanni, who left to join Bret Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin. Taggart will also shuffle the duties of several of his returning offensive assistants. Terry Obee will move to wide receivers coach, a position he held in 2010, with Taggart taking over as the Hilltoppers’ running backs coach. Stu Holt will work solely with the tight ends coach after balancing those duties with his work with W.K.U.’s offensive tackles. Holt’s move hands the entire offensive line over to Walt Wells, the program’s longest-tenured assistant: a decade and counting.
Players to watch
It doesn’t make you feel old, but it does make you realize how quickly times goes by: Kawaun Jakes is now a senior. To me, it seems only yesterday that Jakes was entrenched in a four-way position battle for the starting nod – it was 2009, and he won that battle, starting nine games as a freshman and every game but one over the two years since. So he’s now a senior, and an experienced senior at that, meaning it’s time for Jakes to take on a substantially larger role in this offense.
It’s also time for Jakes to play a better brand of football. He’s been a caretaker as the Hilltoppers’ starter, handing the ball off to Rainey more than 50 percent of the time and simply managing Taggart’s offense as the team’s secondary option – and, to be honest, Jakes hasn’t done a very good job even in a secondary role. After protecting the football well in 2010, tossing 6 picks in 291 attempts, Jakes doubled his turnover total last fall despite making 15 fewer attempts. Without Rainey there to carry the offense on his back, W.K.U. absolutely needs more out of the quarterback position.
And regardless of his starting experience – though that’s a major factor behind his candidacy – the coaching staff might have no choice but to go towards another option if Jakes proves unable to carry the load. Taggart will have other options. One is U.C.F. transfer DeMarcus Smith, though he’s behind the eight ball in terms of his grasp of the system. A second is sophomore Brandon Doughty, though he needs to recover from the A.C.L. injury that ended his rookie season in September. A third is redshirt freshman James Mauro, a Texas product who remains unpolished but looks the part. Jakes has the edge heading into September. Whether he remains the Hilltoppers’ starter depends on his play.
Tight end Jack Doyle is terrific. Consistent: he made at least four receptions in eight games last fall. Productive: his 52 grabs for 614 yards led the team. Potentially dynamic: Doyle had at least 89 receiving yards in four games, cracking the 100-yard mark three times during S.B.C. play – Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy. Doyle is Jakes’ favorite target, not to mention W.K.U.’s most steady option in the passing game, so it’s certainly possible that he tops last year’s output and, with Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ladarius Green gone, lands first-team all-Sun Belt honors.
One thing W.K.U. has at receiver is numbers: there are 17 receivers on the roster altogether, with all 17 off the high school ranks. While this fact bodes well for the Hilltoppers’ future at the position, all but six of the receivers are freshmen or sophomores – in other words, there’s not a ton of experience here. The Hilltoppers will need a full season out of senior Marcus Vasquez, who was leading the team in receptions when he injured his knee in the loss to Indiana State. While Vasquez recovers, W.K.U. is going forward with sophomores Tyler Higbee and Willie McNeal as its two starters. Another pair of second-year players, Rico Brown (13 receptions for 185 yards) and Boe Brand (14 for 140), should see more snaps in 2012.
The offensive line is in great shape, though the Hilltoppers must replace a very strong left tackle in Wes Jeffries, a first-team all-conference pick as a senior. Jeffries will be replaced by sophomore Cameron Clemmons, last year’s starter at right tackle; Clemmons will be replaced on the strong side by senior Seth White, who started the first four games of last season before Clemmons moved into the lineup. Nothing changes along the interior: junior Luis Polanco returns at left guard, junior Sean Conway at center and senior Adam Smith, a second-team all-S.B.C. pick last fall, at right guard. Is this the best offensive line in the Sun Belt? Losing Jeffries hurts, but I think that the Hilltoppers’ front stands right alongside Florida International’s as the best in the league.
One of the beauties of a powerful running game is that it milks the clock, keeping your offense on the field while your defense quotes movie dialogue and cracks jokes from the bench – did you hear the one about Kentucky not being part of the SEC? For example: W.K.U. faced only 762 plays on defense last year, the sixth-fewest of any team in the country. This was a good thing. The Hilltoppers gave up 5.9 yards per play, a total that ranked 86th nationally, so it’s safe to say that the Hilltoppers’ hard-charging running game did more than just score points; it prevented opponents from doing the same.
This defense should be improved in its second season under coordinator Lance Guidry, who came over from Miami (Ohio) prior to last season, but will the improvement offset the Hilltoppers’ projected offensive downturn? It’s a great question. One thing that W.K.U. can do to help itself on defense is cut down on the big plays, making opponent work just a little bit harder. The Hilltoppers allowed 121 plays of 20 or more yards last fall, the third-most in the Sun Belt. Bottling up against the big play is a team-wide effort; every level needs to contribute, beginning with the pass rush from the front seven and the pass defense in the secondary.
About the pass rush: it’s not terrible. The Hilltoppers return a solid edge rusher in senior Quanterus Smith (38 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), the team leader in sacks in each of the last two years. But the defense could use more pressure from the line, especially with the loss of ends Bo Adebayo and Jared Clendenin. With the pair gone, look for junior Cole Tischer to battle for the starting role opposite of Smith. One player to watch is redshirt freshman Gavin Rocker, an undersized speedster who could really help W.K.U. on third down.
The defense did a nice job against the run last fall, especially during conference play – outside of the game against Middle Tennessee, that is. It’s natural to expect a step forward with of last year’s two-deep back in the fold. The returning contributors include both starters, seniors Jamarcus Allen (39 tackles, 7.0 for loss) and Kenny Martin, as well as leading reserves Rammell Lewis and Jamichael Payne. The latter, a 355-pound sophomore – wink, wink – can blot out the sun. While best used in short bursts, Payne can be a major factor on first down.
The only notable move at linebacker during spring drills saw junior Xavius Boyd (53 tackles) move from the strong side over to the weak side, where he’ll replace Ben Duvall. It should be a smooth transition: Boyd started on the weak side in last year’s win over F.I.U., making six tackles in the victory. Boyd’s move opens up the strong side for either his brother, Bar’ee, a special teams demon, or senior Tye Golden. That leaves the middle.
Remember this name: Andrew Jackson. Shouldn’t be hard to remember, right? A 260-pound junior, Jackson (109 tackles, 17.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks) is my pick for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. He’s extremely hard for S.B.C. linemen to handle, thanks to his blend of size and speed. Jackson is also the linebacker who questioned Kentucky’s bona fides – a game he dominated, by the way – in September; he backed up his confidence that week and several more along the way, though Jackson did falter a bit down the stretch. Already the best linebacker in the S.B.C., Jackson could be one of the best at his position on the non-B.C.S. conference level once he gains a touch more experience.
After sitting out last season as a transfer, Jonathan Dowling will move right into a starting role at free safety. Formerly of Florida, Dowling might be the most electric player – not the best, but the most athletic – of Western Kentucky’s F.B.S. existence. Dismissed from Florida for a violation of team rules, Dowling gets a second chance to live up to his potential with the Hilltoppers. With Dowling eligible, W.K.U. moved last year’s starting free safety, senior Kareem Peterson (50 tackles, 3 interceptions) over to strong safety. Peterson will battle for the starting role with junior Kiante Young, an off-and-on starter over his first two years with the program; the loser will be a key reserve, and I imagine that Peterson could also take snaps as the Hilltoppers’ nickel back.
W.K.U. needs to force more turnovers in the secondary. Dowling can help in this area, if he lives up the hype. At cornerback, the Hilltoppers must replace Derrius Brooks and his team-best four interceptions – with those picks accounting for nearly a third of the Hilltoppers’ total as a team. His replacement in the starting lineup will be junior Arius Wright (36 tackles), last year’s third cornerback; he joins junior Tyree Robinson (44 tackles), 21-game starter over his first two seasons. I think that Peterson is an option at nickel back, as is sophomore Cam Thomas and senior Jamal Forrest.
Junior Hendrix Brakefield is a solid punter with the potential to be a very good punter. You saw his potential in the tough loss to Kentucky, when Brakefield bailed out the Hilltoppers’ impotent offense with the finest game of his sophomore season. The key for Brakefield will be to cobble together steady performance after steady performance. W.K.U. might also call on the junior to handle place-kicking duties, seeing that no team in college football got less from the kicking game in 2011 – the three kickers used by W.K.U. were a combined 5-20 on field goals and 30-34 on extra points. Brakefield can’t be any worse. But the questionable kicking game is an issue, especially if the Hilltoppers are involved in another handful of games decided by a touchdown or less.
Position battle(s) to watch
Running back In 2011, Rainey accounted for 77.8 percent of the Hilltoppers’ rushing yards and 49.1 percent of the team’s total offense. As a junior, Rainey made up 78.7 percent of W.K.U.’s rushing yards and 50.4 percent of its total offense. Few players, if any, meant more to their team’s success. Life post-Rainey will send Taggart and W.K.U. back to the drawing board in search of another answer in the running game, which despite the changing of the guard at running back will remain the Hilltoppers’ offensive lifeblood. One thing that’s important to remember: W.K.U. is not finding another Rainey among the team’s returning backs. Perhaps, however, the Hilltoppers can cobble together another solid running game by using two, three or four backs to fill Rainey’s shoes.
The Hilltoppers will still have a solid lead blocker and short-yardage back in junior fullback Kadeem Jones (90 yards, 7 touchdowns); while Jones should see his touches rise in 2012, he’s not the every-down, big-play back this offense needs. Well, that’s not entirely correct: Taggart doesn’t need a big-play back as much as a move-the-chains back. While Rainey wasn’t necessarily explosive, he was explosively consistent — his ability to gain four or five yards on a steady basis helped keep the defense off the field.
The top two at the position heading into the summer are juniors Antonio Andrews (42 yards) and Keshawn Simpson (134 yards). Andrew is the smaller, shiftier back, while Simpson, at 243 pounds, can team with Jones to form the biggest backfield in the Sun Belt. The Hilltoppers also have two redshirt freshmen, Marquis Sumler and Oliver Head, and take on three incoming freshman over the summer — one, Anthony Wales, chose W.K.U. over offers from Illinois, Kentucky and Louisville, among others. No one back is going to be Rainey, and it might take all five or six to match Rainey’s total. They just need to move the chains as a group. One year after starring an all-American in the backfield, the Hilltoppers’ running game is going to take a step back.
Game(s) to watch
W.K.U. should again struggle during non-conference play, though I imagine that this fall won’t see the Hilltoppers suffer another loss to an F.C.S. opponent. Sun Belt plays opens with a bang, thanks to three road games in four tries, but eases as the calendar turns to November. If the Hilltoppers are going to reach bowl eligibility for a second straight season it will likely take three wins over the year’s final month; good thing W.K.U. sandwiches a game at Louisiana-Lafayette with home dates against Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and North Texas. That should allow the Hilltoppers to finish strong, but will three wins in November be enough to lift this team into bowl play?
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I don’t think that Western Kentucky is going to match last season’s win total or notch another second-place finish in the Sun Belt. Let’s just get that out of the way. And if you’re wondering: No, this doesn’t in any way, shape or form indicate a lack of program-wide progress. Don’t be silly. W.K.U. remains light years removed from its stumbling and bumbling F.B.S. debut; even a slide down to five wins in 2012 wouldn’t change the fact that the Hilltoppers are following a Florida International-like path into annual bowl contention. I even think that this year’s team could make a run into bowl play – or bowl eligibility, rather – if Taggart and his staff can address two or three significant concerns. The first is the hole at running back. As noted several times above, the Hilltoppers relied on a time-consuming ground game to not only score points but to keep an unsteady defense off the field. Without a sure thing in the backfield, can W.K.U. continue to wear down S.B.C. competition? Another issue is the defense itself, which should take step forward in its second season under Guidry but must do a better job making the opposition work to move the football. The good news is that the back seven has the potential to be superb; in addition, W.K.U. can tout a very strong rotation along the interior of the line. Finally, let’s discuss the elephant in the room: this schedule. Three difficult non-conference games, even if Kentucky is eminently beatable. Worse yet, W.K.U. gets its three major contenders for the S.B.C. crown on the road: Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida International. With a few personnel issues and this schedule, it’s going to be very hard for this team to match last season’s win total. I’d go as far as to say that W.K.U. will top out at six wins, and might take home only five games should a team like Troy or Louisiana-Monroe take a step forward.
Dream season W.K.U. goes 3-1 in non-conference play, losing only to Alabama, and takes another seven games against the Sun Belt. Thanks to a key late-season win over F.I.U., the Hilltoppers take home the conference title.
Nightmare season Another loss to an F.C.S. teams starts the year off on a terrible note. The Hilltoppers open with six straight losses before righting the ship a bit down the stretch, but finish a disappointing 3-9, 3-5 in S.B.C. play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Western Kentucky fans congregate? The undisputed king of Western Kentucky online chatter is Hilltopper Haven. You should also check out Chad Bishop’s W.K.U. sports blog for the Bowling Green Daily News, as well as the Web site of the College Heights Herald, Western Kentucky’s wonderful student newspaper.
Western Kentucky’s all-name nominee P Hendrix Brakefield.
Through 40 teams 140,842.
Who is No. 84? Tomorrow’s program has scored 30 or more points against F.B.S. competition only once over its last 27 games. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team is 7-20 over this span.
Tags: Adam Smith, Andrew Jackson, Antonio Andrews, Cameron Clemmons, DeMarcus Smith, Hendrix Brakefield, Jack Doyle, Jamarcus Allen, Jamichael Payne, Jonathan Dowling, Kadeem Jones, Kareem Peterson, Kawaun Jakes, Keshawn Simpson, Marcus Vasquez, Quanterus Smith, Sun Belt, Tyree Robinson, Western Kentucky, Willie Taggart, Xavius Boyd
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