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The Towel Rack

WKU Football: Keys to Victory Against UTSA

Now it’s time to get serious. Non-conference play is completely over for both of these teams, and UTSA actually has one conference game under its belt.

The no-brainer story of this game is UTSA, who is undefeated and considered top 35 in the country according to the polls vs. WKU’s incredible offense, which is averaging 20 more points than it did last season.

#33/34 UTSA (5–0 overall, 1–0 C-USA), seems the more complete team, a team that nearly won its division last season, a team with no obvious deficiencies, and a team that returned almost everyone on both sides of the ball. WKU (1–3 overall, 0–0 C-USA) has to be considered the more dangerous team with its offense scoring 39 points per game and not having scored any less than 31 all season. UTSA is yet to give up more than 30 all year, so how do the Roadrunners handle what will clearly be the most high-powered offense they have faced all season? They are yet to score in the high 30s against a quality opponent, which they likely will need if WKU plays well offensively.

So which team is better? No one knows yet. WKU has clearly played the tougher schedule, but UTSA has two solid road wins (at Illinois, at Memphis) that have earned them their votes in the polls. This should be a fascinating battle.

If WKU is going to come out on top, what are the Keys to Victory?

Keys to Victory

UTSA both forces turnovers and takes care of the ball on offense. They force two turnovers per game, mainly stripping the ball from unsuspecting offensive players. They also have only committed six turnovers so far this season. WKU really struggles to create turnovers so far, but also has only given it up a few times (3 giveaways, 3 takeaways). So if WKU can create some turnovers, great. But the Tops really need to hold their own to take away one of the biggest weapons for UTSA: The turnover. UTSA is very strip happy, having forced 11 fumbles in five games. That’s a lot of 50–50 balls on the ground.

I would love to see some blitzing by the Tops. WKU has not fared well being conservative this season, so let the boys pin their ears back and go for it. Get the linebackers involved in the pass rush (more to come on them). UTSA’s offensive line is really good, allowing one less sack than WKU’s offensive line with one more game played. Both units are really good. Both make very few mistakes, and both provide their quarterbacks with nice passing lanes, and both can provide their running backs enough room to operate. Also, a strategy question for WKU (more to come on this): How does WKU handle a mobile quarterback? Western hasn’t really had to handle a dual-threat type of QB this year, so does WKU put Malone as a spy? Do they put a linebacker on him? Do they play straight-up and allow the QB to run free?

But I feel strongly if WKU is comparable in the trenches, the Tops should fare pretty well in this one. It’s very obvious that UTSA dominates the trenches in its games so far. They’re very good up front on both sides of the ball. But a little deceptive fact about UTSA is their offensive line has allowed Frank Harris to be hit 22 times in five games. That’s a lot of near misses that UTSA has so far been able to ignore. However, WKU seems to be the clearly weaker unit defensively so far this season, while the offensive line is also a little less dominant. This is a tough matchup for WKU. It’s not death if they clearly lose this battle, but it sure makes it more difficult.

After studying this team so far this season, I think the issue is the middle of the defense. Sure, the defensive line has struggled. Sure, the secondary has left umpteen receivers wide open. But why is there so much strain on these two units? Because the linebackers are not productive. Linebackers are the connection between the front end and back end. I kind of had this epiphany after breaking it down after the MSU game: WKU needs to figure out a way to get linebackers to produce consistently, or they will continue to struggle stopping both the run and the pass.

Will Ignont and Jaden Hunter have shown flashes. Demetrius Cain has mostly been decent but not prolific. Those three are averaging a combined 15 tackles per game. That’s not completely absent, but the next most prolific linebacker has two tackles, and I believe they were on Special Teams (not doing that research). The linebacker position is contributing less than 20 percent of the tackles per game. They also have done little else. There are a few tackles-for-loss, but there’s nothing to write home about. Either linebackers need to get involved behind the line of scrimmage hitting the QB or RB for loss, or they need to be near the top tacklers on the team. So far, neither is consistently the case, and their lack of production is forcing Malone and Jones and others to drop back in coverage or maintain contain to try to do linebackers’ duties in the passing game instead of rushing the passer. With an opponent that can both run and pass with a read-option dual-threat quarterback, WKU needs somebody from the middle of the defense to step up and make big plays.

Sincere McCormick is a really good running back. He’s averaging over 100 yards per game, and he totes the rock a ton for UTSA. But he’s not alone, either. His quarterback, Frank Harris, is good for 22 net a game himself. He also has a backup, Brenden Brady, who gets nearly 30 yards per game. If WKU can keep McCormick at bay, generally WKU should fare well and force the passing game to beat them. UTSA loves to be physical and run more than pass, so stopping McCormick is going to be key. I believe the key number is in his average. He averages about four yards per carry. If he busts a long run or two, that bumps up his average. If WKU keeps the running game at bay, UTSA will have to nickel and dime its way down the field consistently to keep up with the WKU offense.

How does WKU play UTSA defensively? Do they play quarters (Cover 4 with some man principles underneath) like they have a lot this season? Do they get aggressive? Straight up man-to-man? Do they try a “Bear” front again? Will they blitz a few times per drive? I’m interested to see how they handle it, but my gut says Western needs to muck it up against UTSA and make it choppy and unpredictable defensively against UTSA. If they play straight up, I think the defense is awful again. UTSA is solid everywhere. Make them wonder what the heck you’re going to do next.

If WKU can get yards on the ground when it needs to, that would be a massive coup against a really good run defense. UTSA allows 72 yards per game on the ground and 299 total. Those are both incredible numbers. WKU only gets 79 per game as it is. Can we just get about 79 or a little more and call it good on the ground? I would settle for that. It would be utterly shocking if WKU can’t blow that total yardage number out of the water, but how does WKU handle short yardage situations? Can they get easy yardage on the ground if they want? If they can’t, can they completely rely on the pass to find a way? I would bet money Western will dry a few jet sweeps to switch things up. Do they find gold there or sputter to a halt? WKU’s air raid struggles deep in the red zone, so does WKU find a way to execute when deep in UTSA territory? Field goals are wins for the defense in most college football games. The Tops must be able to run or overcome.

This is now your time to step it up and make things happen if you want to win a championship. Everybody knows this could be a potential matchup in the C-USA Championship Game later in the year. The East is wide open and WKU has caught some attention. UTSA is now the early near-consensus favorite to win the West. A lot of eyes will be on this matchup. How does WKU come out? Can they take a lead to start the game for once? Can they stop someone in the first half? UTSA has already played a conference game, so it will be interesting to see how both teams come out. Will UTSA be steady and focused or anxious and tight? Same thing for WKU. How do the Tops handle the first conference game? It’s put up or shut up time.

Prediction

First of all, UTSA is really good. They do not have any obvious flaws that I can tell. They’re good and deep enough at every position group on all sides of the ball. They can make explosive plays. They score points off turnovers. They make you earn everything you ever do, and they put a lot of pressure on you up front on both sides of the ball. They’re well-coached, not making silly penalties, and they’re winning close games.

However, I just think UTSA (and a lot of C-USA teams) is going to struggle against the Topper offense. I know the UTSA defense is really good, but if WKU scores 35 or more, is UTSA going to suddenly produce that kind of number to combat it offensively? They’re talented and determined, but can they hang with the Tops if the WKU defense is decent and the Topper offense is clicking? I have a tough time seeing WKU held under 30 if Army, Indiana, and Michigan State couldn’t do it. So the question is, “Can UTSA score enough to outduel Bailey Zappe?”

I think they could, but UTSA is going to need to win the turnover battle and they’re going to need some big plays that cancel out the Topper offense’s prowess. I believe UTSA is good, but they’re not as good as their record. They have won three of five games by a touchdown or less. Only one of their five wins was never in doubt. The odds have to even out if the game is close. Luck can be a huge factor in football. Also, UTSA does tend to stall out and kick field goals, having kicked at least one (and a total of 15 through five games) in each game. If WKU can keep UTSA out of the end zone several times, that’s huge for WKU.

I believe WKU makes a statement against a team that is a little inflated by circumstance. I believe UTSA just has a letdown in a non-divisional game. WKU knows it needs this win. UTSA may not need it. I’ve got WKU 52-UTSA 27.

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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