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Indiana Hoosiers v. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (preview).


Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

2010 record: 0-2 (0-0 in Sun Belt)
2009 record: 0-12
2009 Sagarin:  187
Conference: Sun Belt
Coach: Willie Taggart (1st year, 0-2)
Series: IU leads 1-0
TV: 5 p.m., Big Ten Network

After a 16 day layoff, the Hoosiers return to action Saturday evening in a road game against Western Kentucky.  Indiana will become the first Big Ten team to visit Bowling Green, Kentucky to play the Hilltoppers in football.  Given current scheduling trends, games like this will be increasingly common for IU.  Since 1996, IU has played eightroad games against teams from outside the six major conferences and has fared pretty well:

  • 1996: IU 40, Toledo 6: Bill Mallory's last IU team beat current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
  • 1998: IU 48, Cincinnati 14.  What a difference a decade makes.
  • 2002: Utah 40, IU 13.  This was the pre-Urban Meyer Utah.  Gerry Dinardo's first IU squad was not a good team.
  • 2003: Connecticut 34, IU 10.  The Hoosiers provided little resistance in the first game in UConn's new stadium. 
  • 2005: IU 20, Central Michigan 13.  Terry' Hoewppner's firstgame as IU coach.
  • 2006: IU 24, Ball State 23.  This was the diciest of IU's MAC road games, but the Hoosiers won after spotting BSU a 23-6 lead. 
  • 2007: IU 37, Western Michigan 27.  IU opened up a huge lead and held on. 
  • 2009: IU 38, Akron 21.  Like the 2006 Ball State game, a kickoff return for a touchdown, this one by Ray Fisher, is key. 

In short, IU struggled against then quasi-major Connecticut and Utah, but generally has played well, or at least well enough to win, against MAC-level opposition.  Western Kentucky would appear to fit into that category.

Western Kentucky now has fully transitioned to FBS (Division I-A), but struggled horribly in its first year as a full member last year.  Last year, Western Kentucky, not even a decade removed from a I-AA national championship, finished 0-12.  Coach David Elson, now on the IU staff, was fired, and former Hilltopper quarterback Willie Taggart, formerly the running backs coach at Stanford, returned to his alma mater.  As I mentioned during my preseason look at WKU, Jack Harbaugh, the father of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and father in law of IU basketball coach Tom Crean, coached Taggart at WKU and led WKU to the 2002 national championship. 

WKU now owns the nation's longest losing streak, 22 games.  The schedule hasn't provided much opportunity for the Hilltoppers to show whether they are improved this season.  WKU opened with a 49-10 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln, and in their second game lost 63-28 to Kentucky in Lexington.  I noted in my preseason preview that Bobby Rainey, the Hilltoppers' running back, had a solid season in 2009, and he has been even better against tough competition in 2010.  Rainey ranks #4 in the nation with 339 rushing yards and is averaging 6.5 yards per carry.  Quarterback  Kawaun Jakes has struggled a bit as a passer.  His completion percentage, which was 60 percent last season, is down to 54, and he has passed for one touchdown and two interceptions.  Jakes has attempted only 37 passes in the first two games.  While the offense has been one dimensional, Rainey has been very effective.  Nebraska coach Bo Pelini called his team's run defense "an embarrassment" after Rainey ran for 155 yards against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska had a top 10 run defense last season.  Where does that leave the Hoosiers?

During the season opener against Towson, IU's offense was very effective, but allowed nearly 400 yards of offense and struggled to contain Towson's mobile quarterback.  The Hoosiers gave up big plays and small plays, and Towson's numbers were impressive even before garbage time, which began halfway through the third quarter.  The WKU game provides some important challenges.  It appears beyond doubt that the Hoosiers will be able to move the ball and score points against the Hilltoppers.  The key questions are whether IU can stop Rainey and whether they can take a step forward defensively.  The IU defense wasn't entirely grim.  The Hoosiers did force three turnovers.  Still, finding a way to limit big plays would be an important step for this team.   Finally, it's worth noting that this probably is the biggest home game in WKU's history.  The Hilltoppers hosted South Florida last season, but IU is the first Big Ten team to make the trip.  WKU's 22,000 seat stadium will not be mistaken for the Horseshoe or the Big House, but it will be packed and loud.  It will be a nice test for the Hoosiers.  My prediction?  The defense will take a bit of a step, and with Tandon Doss back in the fold, the offense will be fine.  Indiana 40, Western Kentucky 17.