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WKU Football: Keys to Victory Against Indiana

In the most anticipated game in L.T. Smith Stadium in several years, the Indiana Hoosiers (1–2, 0–1 B1G) come to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1–1, 0–0 C-USA) on the gridiron. Preseason, this looked a home game against a ranked opponent for the Hilltoppers, which would have been the first time since 2008 against Ball State, but Indiana has lost to two top ten teams and finds itself unranked and facing a lot of doubt in Bloomington.

After the IU football team surprised a lot of people last year, finishing second in the East division of the Big Ten to Ohio State, beating more traditional powers Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State all in the same season, the Hoosiers came in predicted to finished as the fourth best overall team in the B1G.

However, quarterback Michael Penix, Jr., has been incredibly disappointing, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and throwing for 125+ yards per game less than last year. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, the Indiana defense has been decent, holding opponents to under 300 yards per game on average and 28 percent on third downs.

This is an interesting matchup for the Tops, who have scored 35 or more in both of their games, but have also given up at least 200 rushing yards in those two games defensively, giving up 38 points and 341 rushing yards to Army. However, Indiana’s defense, despite giving up less than 300 yards per outing is still giving up over 28 points per game.

So something has to give here. One of these defenses has to give up less than the other at some point. And Indiana’s offense needs to take advantage of what is still a project on the defensive side of the ball for the Hilltoppers. In theory, Indiana should feast regardless. They’re the borderline ranked team. They’re the Power Five squad. But WKU is at home. The game should be a sellout or extremely close to it. It should be an awesome atmosphere. WKU has a dangerous offense that, if not stopped, could steal the game by simply outscoring the opponent. This could be what they call a “match-up problem” for IU if they can’t move the ball.

I’m not calling upset, as you’ll see in my prediction, but this is an upset alert if I ever saw one. WKU is the dangerous up-tempo team that has potential to get even better as the year goes along.

Keys to Victory

Don’t Play the Penix Game

Michael Penix, Jr. is a hot-and-cold type of quarterback. He can be incredible and then he can be what the kids call “straight trash, bruh”. So far, frankly, he’s been the latter. He was a really nice pocket passer last season, averaging nearly 300 yards per game against a schedule of only Power Five opponents. I think because he’s long and athletic, people look at him as a runner, but statistically counting this season and last season, he’s rushed for a total of 54 net yards. He has -15 yards rushing so far this season. He has had some injuries in his career and according to our conversation with Hoosier Huddle, Penix is pretty hesitant to run after his second ACL tear.

He nearly beat Ohio State last year, but then again, he faces Iowa to open the 2021 season and throws for 156 yards and three interceptions with “Indinia” losing to Iowa 34–6. Seriously, Tops, keep Penix in check and frankly it’s going to be hard for Indiana to win. The challenge, though is he is a really good player that could get on track against a lower caliber defense.

Indiana’s Equipment Staff Missed this Mistake Against Iowa on September 4, 2021

Keep the IU Running Game Under 200 Yards OR Keep the Total Under 400

Honestly, it seems ridiculous, but WKU hasn’t proven it can hold UT-Martin under 200. Let’s just try to get it done against a team that averages 136 and hasn’t rushed for 200 yet this year. If Idaho can hold the Hoosiers to 179 rushing, WKU can play sound enough to hold them under 200. A caveat to this requirement would be if WKU gives up 200, they cannot give up 200 in the air. I think if WKU gives up much more than 400, Indiana is keeping up with the Tops offensively and the defensive and special teams (and overall) talent will rule the day and the Tops will lose.

If and probably only if WKU can slow down the run and keep IU from playing well offensively, WKU can win this game. If it’s a back-and-forth shootout, I still think WKU could win because of preferred style of play, but it would be so much harder to out-talent the more talented team, especially when your defense (thus far) is obviously the weakest unit of the six units anyone can put on the field.

200 More Passing Yards than Indiana

I believe this game hinges on Bailey Zappe being the clearly better quarterback. If Zappe is human, forget it. I believe Indiana will stomp WKU if that’s the case. If Penix is his equal, you can probably forget it, depending on exactly how great Zappe is. If Zappe is clearly better, given the remote semblance of any rushing attack to compliment, WKU could pull of the upset. At a minimum, Zappe needs 400 yards. He averages 426 through a couple of games, so asking for 500–600 is not that much if the Tops actually expect to win this thing.

From Hoosier Huddle: “The defense has played really well this season despite the ugly points per game average. They have been set up for failure by the offense and some special teams miscues. IU’s secondary is very talented with four All-Big Ten selections. Linebacker Micah McFadden is an All-American and defensive end Ryder Anderson can get into the backfield and be disruptive as much as anyone. It should be a fun strength-on-strength matchup to watch.”

This requirement all hinges on the defense. If Penix can’t move the ball, Zappe doesn’t have to do as much. But it’s also pretty much a given that IU will bust a couple of big plays and get well into the 300s in offensive yards one way or another. It seems to stand to reason that a Power Five opponent should be able to score and move the ball against a Group of Five opponent. Therefore, Zappe needs to be clearly better than whatever Indiana puts out there. I believe Penix is incapable of running an offense to perfection, as in scoring every single drive, so just be great and let him screw up a couple of times and let’s see where the chips fall. Zappe has proven he can be nearly perfect several times in his career.

Clearly Win the Hidden Yardage Battle

Want to upset a team that’s clearly more talented? Want to name a weakness for Indiana so far this season? Want to also name an area where they have shown significant talent, as well? Hidden yardage. They both have massive plays in their favor and have committed massive atrocities against themselves. They had two punt return touchdowns against Idaho. They have also given up a kick return for a touchdown already this season. They also average 28.6 yards a return themselves, including a 72 yarder that didn’t quite make the end zone. They have forced five fumbles and recovered four. 49 points off turnovers have been scored between themselves and their opponents in three games. That’s a potential swing of 16.3 points per game. They are yet to stop a team from scoring in the red zone this season. Again, that’s another 16 points per game up for grabs.

These are all opportunities for the Tops to absolutely get washed away and blown out. If the opportunities are taken, maybe WKU could find its way into the game or even win it by making big plays. IU has certainly shown an ability to shoot itself in the foot this season.

Have Two of the Three Units on Defense Be As Good or Better Than Indiana

This is the tallest ask of all. Here’s the problem with needing to accomplish this: Indiana’s defense is insane. All four of the starters in the secondary were or are All-Big Ten. They have an All-American linebacker and a disruptive defensive end that should probably be All-Big Ten this year. Now, guess what WKU has? A former freshman All-American Defensive End in Juwuan Jones and another future NFL draft pick and All-American type in DeAngelo Malone. There’s Jeremy Darvin, a creator of chaos in the middle. Grad transfer Michael Pitts has been great so far, as well. There’s some young talent that has contributed thus far. Far and away, WKU’s best level on the defense in terms of depth and talent is the defensive line. So one would assume they should be the one unit that could shine for the Tops.

WKU also has Antwon Kincade, a do-it-all All-Conference type of safety that produces consistently, who should probably play at the next level. WKU has made some plays in the secondary and has some high level transfers on defense at all three levels. But again, WKU faces a tall task in outshining Indiana’s defense. I really believe WKU needs to produce some huge plays defensively and hold on. Pick six. Three or more sacks by one player. Forced fumbles. Drawing holding penalties. PBUs. TFLs. Multiple things like that and the Tops would give their offense a chance. And frankly they need to pull it straight out of their behind, because we haven’t seen much of that yet.

Prediction

Man, of course I want to just say WKU wins, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. There is too much to overcome in this one. Indiana is much better than any version WKU has ever seen, and right now, WKU’s running game is not ready, nor is the rushing defense proven to be ready, to upset a good Power Five. That being said, I believe Indiana, who seems to be taking this game lightly, is going to be surprised by how good this WKU offense is, even despite not having a running game. I believe WKU’s offense could singlehandedly beat almost anyone in the country.

However, they need help, and I do think WKU’s defense is going to take a step in the right direction this week. But I just don’t think it’s going to be enough. They would need to completely turn everything around to be considered a good defense. Indiana has the potential to score (56 points vs. Idaho), which just takes another possibility off the table. They can score if they need to. WKU’s offense can obviously score. But to me, the fact that IU’s defense is contender to championship level good at every level is something that should probably be able to slow Western down enough that the IU offense will produce enough, even if they’re not at their best.

I see possibilities, and I see a match-up problem if the Topper offense just goes off for 500-600 yards. But what is the likelihood of that against such a solid defense? Not very high. So I’m going to go with the safe pick, and I’m going to say WKU misses opportunities to keep it closer, IU 38-WKU 24.

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Matt McCay

Matt McCay

L&H agt @safeguardky. Husband to Steph. Daddy to Riley & Hailey. Member @destinychurchbg. @WKUFootball ‘14 #WKU BA ‘14 #WKU MS ‘17 #GOTOPS @TheTowelRackWKU