By Ethan Levine
UK offensive line vs. Western Kentucky pass rush
The Cats feature an offense nothing like the one Western Kentucky saw when these two teams squared off to begin last season. With then-starter Morgan Newton at quarterback, UK’s offense was predicated on an inconsistent rushing attack behind a banged-up offensive line, and a vanilla passing game that heavily relied on safe but ineffective screen passes.
Now UK features a wide-open offense that utilizes the shotgun formation, and at times, a no-huddle tempo. Quarterback Maxwell Smith has passed the ball 89 times in the Cats’ first two games, and the confidence between Smith and his receivers is only growing.
But the Hilltoppers’ defense is not going to roll over without a fight. One week ago, WKU recorded six sacks against defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Alabama. Despite losing 35-0, the Hilltoppers held the Crimson Tide to just 328 total yards. For a point of comparison, UK’s defense has allowed 875 total yards in its first two games, allowing more than 400 yards in each game.
If WKU can apply the same type of pass rush against UK, the Cats’ offense could be in for a long evening. As much as UK likes to pass in its new offensive system, it is critical that Smith be given time to find his receivers. Against Kent State, Smith completed 30 passes to 10 different receivers, accumulating 354 yards through the air and four touchdowns.
Edge: UK offensive line
The offensive line for the Cats has allowed just three sacks so far this season, and is getting better each and every week. Unlike last season, the line has managed to remain healthy and in tact, allowing UK’s linemen to build chemistry and gain confidence in themselves and one another. WKU has an excellent defense that won’t make anything easy on the Cats’ offense, but expect the offensive line to respect the Hilltoppers’ defense and dominate the line of scrimmage.
UK defensive line vs. WKU rushing attack
Former WKU star running back Bobby Rainey graduated, but the UK defense isn’t exactly off the hook. The Hilltoppers’ offense is still very dependent on the run, no matter who is carrying the ball.
Two games into the season, one of which was against a stout Alabama defense, WKU has four players averaging more than five yards per carry, including freshman running back Leon Allen, who has 24 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown in his young career.
Quarterback Kawaun Jakes is back for his senior season and provides a threat to opposing defenses both through the air and on the ground with impressive mobility.
Defensively, UK has simplified its packages and shifted players around to help compensate for an overwhelming amount of youth in the starting lineup (which of course comes with an underwhelming lack of experience). The Cats have moved edge rusher Bud Dupree to weakside linebacker, replacing him on the defensive line with senior Taylor Wyndham. Wyndham and fellow senior defensive end Collins Ukwu have said the shift makes the defense much bigger. Facing a power running team like WKU, the added size and versatility should work in UK’s favor. But if the Cats are unable to stop the run, expect WKU to become UK’s third straight opponent to rack up a ton of total yards on offense.
Edge: WKU rushing attack
Don’t expect Allen or any of the Hilltoppers’ other backs to put up career numbers, but expect the run game to be effective. Not only does UK lack experience on defense, but with Wyndham moving into the starting lineup, the Cats also lack depth. If WKU elects to stick with the run, it is going to wear the UK defense down. It may not be flashy, but the Hilltoppers’ ground game could be the key to keeping up with UK on the scoreboard over the course of four quarters.
Overall Edge: UK
While the WKU defense deserves a ton of credit for what it did against Alabama last week, the Cats’ offense is also dangerous. Starting senior running back CoShik Williams returns this week after sitting out with a back injury, adding to the list of weapons Smith will have against the Hilltoppers. Expect Smith to spread it around and get the ball out quick to try to neutralize a dangerous defensive front. from WKU. Final score: UK 24, WKU 14.