One of the first signs that last year’s Indiana football season was potentially going to get hairy was the week four matchup with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, when the Hoosiers eked out a 33-31 win.
D.J. Matthews went down early after an awkward step during a punt return with what ended up being a season-ending ACL tear while the Hilltoppers’ high-powered offense prevented the Hoosiers from ever really getting a comfortable lead.
Luckily for Indiana, Zach Kittley’s offense made him a hot commodity on the coaching market and he was hired away from Western Kentucky this offseason by Texas Tech, where he’s now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. They also lost starting QB Bailey Zappe, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots in last year’s draft.
Still, it would be unwise for the Hoosiers to overlook Western Kentucky again, especially since this appears to be one of the more winnable games on the schedule in what could be another tough season.
Here’s what to expect from the Hilltoppers:
Despite losing the starting quarterback and offensive coordinator, Western Kentucky’s offense should not be taken lightly this season. Head coach Tyson Helton also comes from an offensive background, having served as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator before taking the Western Kentucky job in 2018, so Kittley’s departure won’t be a total reset.
Further, Helton replaced Kittley by naming three position coaches, Ben Arbuckle, Zach Lankford, and Josh Crawford as co-offensive coordinators this year. Obviously, Helton is hoping this continuity will help the Hilltoppers recreate some of the magic that made them the second best offense in the FBS last season.
The Hilltoppers return seven starters on offense, including two of their top five receivers and most of their offensive line. Each of the returning starting receivers, Daewood Davis, Dalvin Smith, and Malachi Corley, caught a touchdown pass against the Hoosiers in last year’s matchup. The trio also combined for 20 touchdowns last year - more than double the total for Indiana’s entire receiving core last season, who only found the end zone nine times.
At quarterback, transfer Jarret Doege figures to be the starter after playing two seasons at Bowling Green and three seasons with West Virginia. Doege was with the Mountaineers most recently, where he threw for 40 touchdowns versus 19 interceptions across those three years.
Interestingly, 12 of those 19 interceptions came last year, so it’s not clear that he’s trending up despite joining Western Kentucky as college football’s active leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Nevertheless, he’s made the watch list for the Maxwell Award and seems to be a good fit in WKU’s pass-first offense.
Western Kentucky’s defense was never the star of the show last year, and Indiana’s 33 points against them last year was the second best performance the Hoosiers turned in last season behind a 35-point effort against Maryland.
Like Indiana’s defense last year, Western Kentucky’s defense was on the field a lot more than most coordinators would think ideal considering how quickly their offense was capable of scoring. In last year’s game, for example, the Hoosiers had over 38 minutes of possession versus just 21 from the Hilltoppers.
With ten starters returning, the group should be pretty familiar for Indiana, though there will be a new defensive coordinator at the helm in Tyson Summers, who has promised to bring in an “attacking defense” that could give up big plays but aims to force more field goals than touchdowns.
Up front, Juwuan Jones and Darius Shipp, who combined for six sacks last season, are likely to be the primary pass rushers, while AJ Brathwaite and Khalef Hailassie will anchor a fairly experienced secondary.
This figures to be an interesting game for Indiana, since it should be strength against strength and weakness against weakness on both sides of the ball.
Indiana’s defense, specifically the secondary, will need to be as good as advertised to contain what should be an explosive offense. Facing a quarterback like Doege could give the Hoosiers a chance to improve on the turnover margin from last year, but he’s capable of lighting up power-5 defenses that get too aggressive against him.
On the other side of the ball, this game should be a good measuring stick for Walt Bell’s new offense. Regardless of whether WKU has improved on defense, their offensive scheme essentially guarantees that Indiana will have favorable time of possession numbers and catching them early in the season hopefully means there won’t be too many injuries.
It took a career-high 34 completions from Michael Penix Jr. to put up 33 points on WKU last year, plus two rushing touchdowns from Stephen Carr, so it’s probably wise to hope for Indiana’s defense to contain the Hilltoppers’ offense better this year for the Hoosiers to emerge victorious.