Fletcher Keel, who covers Western Kentucky for SBNation's Group of Five blog Underdog Dynasty, stopped by to chat about this weekend's Indiana-Western Kentucky matchup this Saturday. That game will air at 4pm Saturday on ESPNews. Let's get rollin'.
1. Indiana fans were introduced to this incarnation of WKU football last season when Jeff Brohm's club ended Marshall's undefeated run. Simply stated: is this team better or worse than last year's 8-5 club?
FK: "I think so far, this team is better than last year's 8-5 club. The thing about last year's club is that they very easily could have finished with 10 or more wins, but it also very easily could have missed a bowl game or have lost that Bahama's Bowl to Central Michigan. The defense last year was the sore spot - in four of those five losses (Louisiana Tech was the outlier), the Tops held a 10-point lead at one point, only to see it dissipate.
Through the first two games, I'd argue the defense has been more of the story than the highly touted offense for a couple of reasons - one, because of the slow start the offense had in the opening week against Vandy and two, how good they've looked over the first two games - leaps and bounds from last year. No, granted, they did let LA Tech come back into the game last week, but still the defense has been solid and it's a pleasant surprise. A competent defense with this offense means this team is better than last year (whether or not the record will reflect it at the end of 2015 remains to be seen)."
2. This will be your first game without stud running back Leon Allen, out for the season after leading C-USA in yards from scrimmage in 2014. How damning of a blow is that for Hilltopper fans -- both heading into this matchup and on into the season?
FK: "It's certainly a blow. With how good Brandon Doughty was last year, Allen almost got lost in the shuffle. He wasn't the workhorse that Bobby Rainey was (rather, had to be), nor was he the flashy all around threat that Antonio Andrews was, but Allen was a monster in the backfield. He set a CUSA game single season rushing record against Army last year and was having a really good game before succumbing to his injury against LA Tech.
What a lot of Hoosiers fans might not know is that the Hilltoppers' #2 back on the depth chart, Ace Wales, is also injured, so the two backs WKU will be touting out on Saturday will have started fall camp as the #3 and #4 backs. D'Andre Ferby seems to be the guy who well get a bulk of the carries in Allen's absence, and while he hasn't gotten that much work over the first two weeks, when he has been on the field, I've been really impressed with what I've seen and hopefully he transitions easily into the #1 guy. Anthony Davis is the second option (a former Hoosier) and he's gotten even less opportunities early this year than Ferby, so what he does will be a surprise.
But to summarize a long answer, yes it's a big blow for WKU and will probably be a bigger deal this week than throughout the season because Ferby and Davis will progress as the year goes on, and hopefully before the season ends, Wales will be back as well."
3. Jeff Brohm's club has won seven straight dating back to last season -- but the last four of those (Marshall, Central Michigan, Vanderbilt, Louisiana Tech) by a combined seven points. If you have to point to one thing that helps them grind out close wins, what is it?
FK: "It's funny because each of these games, really, are completely different from one another. Losses last year to Illinois, FAU and UAB all saw huge halftime leads disappear in the second half, leading to a very bitter loss in the taste of Tops fans' mouths. They all had a theme. None of these games really correlate to the other in the way those three did
Marshall was just a fun, arena-league style shootout; WKU's defense made more plays (the Tops had three huge interceptions that lead to points), and it knocked the Herd out of the Top 25 while propelling WKU to a bowl game. In the Bahama's Bowl, it was really the same story I mentioned earlier - the Tops had a huge lead, they took the offensive pressure off and the Chippewas were able to take advantage and nearly win.
The Vanderbilt game was probably the best defensive effort WKU has had in the Jeff Brohm era. With the 2014 defense, WKU loses 23-7 (that's a fake number, but it wouldn't have been a win). Last week against LA Tech it showed glimpses of what we Hilltopper followers were used to last year but they were also facing an SEC-caliber quarterback in Jeff Driskel, had to stop one of the best rushers in the conference in Kenneth Dixon and still nearly won by a 10-point margin (a garbage-time touchdown made it the three-point final).
But one thing to watch for on Saturday will definitely be offensive play in the second half - will WKU jump out to a 10/17/21 point victory at halftime? If so, how conservative will they come out in the third quarter? So, I guess in a way, to answer your question, it's actually to say the Tops don't grind out the close wins - they do just enough to avoid losing in the waning moments of the fourth quarter."
4. Indiana fans need something to help them sleep at night. Give me WKU's biggest weakness.
FK: "A couple of things - 1.) injuries. Leon Allen is done for the year so the backfield hasn't proven anything yet, but also, Wonderful Terry is injured and he's a key piece in the secondary for WKU. And two, while I've been praising the defense part of me is still worried they'll resort to last year's style of play and allow a ton of points in the second half.
Doughty is not a weakness, but there is a way to exploit him and force him to have an off game, just like Vanderbilt did. Blitz. Blitz blitz blitz blitz. Make him move in the pocket or just get him out of his rhythm. If everyone is open down field and he has a running lane, he won't take it (he lost the 2011 season after just three plays because he ruptured his ACL trying to run for a first down and has been gun shy ever since). It isn't to say the Tops O-line is poor, Doughty just feels much more comfortable when he has time and protection in the pocket."
5. Alright, give me a prediction.
FK: "I've been so wrong in my predictions for the first two games, but in both games I predicted a WKU win. I thought the Tops would hang 50 on Vandy, and they only scored 14. I thought it'd be a struggle against LA Tech (who beat WKU 59-10 last year), but the Tops had control for most of the game. I'm honestly not sure what to think heading into saturday, and honestly a big reason why is not just the loss of Allen, but the question marks in the backfield as a whole with Ferby and Davis. I think WKU wins (...I think...) but Indiana has proven to close games this year while WKU has been living on keeping teams from coming all the way back over the last four games. I think the final score will say something along the lines of 48-46 (god help us all if this game comes down to another 2-point conversion; something that happened in the Marshall, Central Michigan and Vandy games), but I think a late-fourth-quarter Hoosier's touchdown will bring the game closer, but it'll really feel like a 10-point WKU win."