Game Info / How to Watch
Who? Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (2-0, #52 F/+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (2-0, #81 F/+)
When? 4:00 PM, Bloomington, Indiana
Vegas? INDIANA -2, 70.5 o/u (!!!)
Let's talk about two football programs.
In 2008, Western Kentucky had embarked on their first season as an FBS program. They came to Bloomington and were routed by Bill Lynch's Hoosiers, losing 31-13 in the first leg of a home-and-home agreement. Bill Lynch and Indiana would win the follow-up game in Bowling Green, Kentucky two years later, capping off a stretch of three seasons that saw the Hilltoppers win 4 games, including a winless season in 2009.
However, since that stretch, the Hilltoppers have fielded bowl-eligible teams every single season, including one of the most watchable squads in all of college football last year. The 2014 Hilltoppers scored less than 34 points one time and scored more than 40 seven times, culminating in a wildly entertaining Popeyes Bahamas Bowl against Central Michigan that saw the much-maligned Hilltopper defense give up a long touchdown on a handful of desperation laterals, but then successfully preventing the would-be go-ahead two-point conversion (hyphens!) in a sequence that was closer to a drag race where both cars catch on fire and cross the finish line anyway than college football.
In the seven-plus seasons since joining the FBS, Western Kentucky has built what Indiana football fans have been dying to see for decades: consistent bowl-eligible teams. Yes, they've done it in a mid-major conference against primarily mid-major competition, but they've also had to do it with mid-major level resources. In the seven-plus seasons since Western Kentucky joined the FBS, Indiana has yet to sniff bowl eligibility, and have had to grind through their own rebuild after the 2010 season.
Make no mistake: I believe in what Kevin Wilson is doing here at Indiana. I also believe that defeating a program that has arguably surpassed Indiana in less than a decade of FBS play would build a lot of momentum for a program that is starving for any sort of positive development.
But can they do it?
Western Kentucky has built a familiar model: score a bunch of points and then desperately hope the defense can hold up long enough to make it matter. Their last game against Louisiana Tech is indicative of that model, as the Hilltoppers held a 38-24 lead going into the final frame and made just enough plays on defense to hold on to a 41-38 victory. It's not always pretty, but it's always fun as hell to witness.
Brandon Doughty is where it all begins with the Hilltoppers. The senior signal-caller compiled a monster season last year, throwing 49 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, completing nearly 68% of his passes for 4830 yards and is looking an awful lot like that guy again in 2015, with 650 yards to his name through two games against Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech. He's going to be one of the best quarterbacks the Hoosiers see all year. And thanks to a redshirt year and a medical waiver, Doughty is in his sixth year of eligibility, which means he's probably, like, 30. So he's probably got that dad-savviness in the pocket going for him.
It's good that Doughty is an established stud, because the Hilltoppers will need him more than ever, as leading rusher Leon Allen was lost for the season in their last game. Allen rushed for 1500 yards and 13 scores last season, enjoying a very similar campaign to the one Jordan Howard had last year at UAB. With Allen's backup already hurt, WKU will likely hand the majority of the backfield touches to D'Andre Ferby, who was slated to be third on their depth chart coming out of the summer.
Backup's backup or not, we all know the Indiana defense isn't in a position to underestimate anyone. They'll have their hands full trying to contain Doughty and keep him off balance, Ferby could end up having quite a few open lanes if he can break a tackle or two. And as we saw multiple times in the first two games, Indiana's tackling remains somewhat suspect this season. WKU has an efficient offensive outfit, handing away extra yards after making contact is never advisable, and that goes double for this game.
Fortunately, Indiana should have the services of Tegray Scales for this game, as their budding freshman star linebacker missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension. This is a great development for a unit that has done a lot of bending the past couple weeks but has yet to completely snap. In fact, despite all of the negativity surrounding Indiana's defense, that side of the ball has come up huge in both victories, stopping a would-be go-ahead two-point conversion (hey look I used this ridiculous string of hyphens twice!) against SIU and collecting a pick-six late in the game to seal the victory over Florida International.
Granted, it would be much nicer for the defense to come up with similar stops more frequently and earlier in the game to prevent the desperate need to make a huge play with the game on the line later. But the past couple of years it seemed like the defense could never make the big play late and they've now done it twice. Sure, it wasn't against the stiffest of competition, but neither was Navy, neither was Bowling Green, neither were a lot of teams over the past few seasons that Indiana lost to due to an inability to come up with a timely stop. Consistency is built over time, and Indiana can't be expected to make big plays in big games until they start making them in the small games. It can be frustrating to see progress happen so slowly, but incremental progress is still progress, at least.
Offensively, Indiana took a step back against FIU, as Sudfeld struggled to connect with guys consistently down the field, but the running game provided an excellent option to lean on throughout the game, as Jordan Howard chipped in over 150 yards and Nate Sudfeld powered in a couple touchdowns down by the goal line, again showing a willingness to (slowly) take the yards the defense hands him.
There's no need to overanalyze this one. It's going to be a scoring fiesta as neither defense has shown the ability to stop the quality of offense each will be facing on Saturday. A game where both teams break 50 in regulation won't surprise me and shouldn't surprise you.
This game was deemed "that game" by much of the staff heading into the year. You all know what "that game" is. That game that you know Indiana -shouldn't- lose but you can't shake the feeling that they absolutely will. Personally, I'm an optimist (and think "that game" is next week against Wake Forest), and think Indiana wins this game 59-52 in what will be one of the most watchable games in college football all season.
Finally: who has two thumbs and has been named a "person of interest" in a string of kidnappings?