LEXINGTON — The key for Kentucky to escape with a win over Western Kentucky Saturday (7 p.m. EDT at Nashville’s LP Field) is full of irony.
The Hilltoppers’ strength on defense appears to be in the back seven — linebackers and secondary. WKU lost all of its starters on the defensive line, but returns its back seven.
That would seem to encourage the Wildcats to run the ball, and that goes against this air raid theme that offensive coordinator Neal Brown has brought to UK.
My guess is that UK, in fact, will run the ball more than we’ve been led to believe. So it may be a matter of whether seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, along with sophomore Dyshawn Mobley and freshman Jojo Kemp, can carry the Wildcats to victory.
The hope for Brown, head coach Mark Stoops and company may be that the running game can be just effective enough to open up some things in UK’s passing attack, regardless of who starts at quarterback for Kentucky — Jalen Whitlow or Maxwell Smith.
It may make sense to start Whitlow since he is a significantly bigger threat to run than Smith.
If the running game is not effective, then look for Smith to enter the game sooner rather than later.
Either way, the Western defense provides a great challenge to the Kentucky offense because WKU has two of the elite players in the country on that side of the ball in 6-foot-1, 257-pound senior middle linebacker Andrew Jackson and junior safety Jonathon Dowling.
Jackson led Western in tackles last season with 122, and Dowling ate Kentucky alive last fall in the Hilltoppers’ 32-31 overtime win at Commonwealth Stadium, picking off three Smith passes.
A wild card for the UK offense may be the Wildcats’ ability to generate big plays by playmakers they largely did not have a year ago.
Freshman wide out Ryan Timmons, of Franklin County fame, should see plenty of playing time Saturday, even if he doesn’t start, and could be the guy to jump-start the UK offense.
Juco transfer Javess Blue, sophomores Demarco Robinson, A.J. Legree and Daryl Collins and freshmen Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet are among the others who could have breakout seasons for the Wildcats.
The tight end spot could also be a featured part of the Kentucky attack under Brown, and the coaches have praised seniors Jordan Aumiller and Anthony Kendrick this fall.
Aumiller is the biggest pass-catching threat, while Kendrick is the more physical guy.
The Wildcats offer strengths on defense that contrast with their WKU counterparts. The Wildcats look to be solid on the defensive line, but question marks abound in UK’s back seven.
Seniors Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph anchor UK’s interior line, and the Wildcats potentially have one of the best defensive end combos in the country in juniors Alvin “Bud” Dupree and juco transfer Za’Darius Smith.
The kink in UK’s armor Saturday on the defensive side could be that Smith has been nursing a high ankle sprain and Rumph a sore shoulder.
The more significant worry for the Wildcats’ defense is that senior linebacker Avery Williamson may be, for now, UK’s only SEC-ready talent in the back seven.
That’s a scary thought given the track record of Western coach Bobby Petrino to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.
The Hilltoppers will start a redshirt junior, Brandon Doughty, at quarterback. It will be Doughty’s first college start, but he has one of the premier running backs in the country in senior Antonio Andrews and a speedy wide out in Willie McNeal to share the burden.
The 6-foot, 219-pound Andrews piled up 1,784 yards last season and has his sights set on the 2,000-yard mark this time around.
Smith caught six touchdown passes last season for a 7-6 WKU team and is also a scary kick returner.
So the keys to this outcome are as follows:
1. Can Kentucky get enough defensive pressure on Doughty to throw him off rhythm? If the Wildcats cannot, Western wins.
2. A problem for UK here is that Petrino could use Andrews effectively in play action, and slow the Kentucky pass rush.
If Andrews can break into the secondary, look out.
3. Can the Wildcats run the ball effectively against Western, and can UK’s offensive line keep pressure off Whitlow and Smith?
4. Then there’s the intangibles ... the emotions. Western’s win here last season and the trash talking that followed from the red and white side rubbed the Wildcats the wrong way, to say the least.
On the other hand, the Hilltoppers, as a Sun Belt team now and Conference USA team next year, will always have plenty of motivation against a higher profile team like Kentucky.
You also have, of course, new coaching staffs at both schools. Petrino is a proven commodity — generally considered one of the top 10 coaches in the country – while Stoops is unproven as a head man.
All we can say for sure is this will be a considerably more exciting affair than these two schools played two years ago in Nashville, won by Kentucky in a snooze-fest, 14-3.
Saturday’s tilt will NOT be 14-3. Kentucky may win, but it won’t be a low score.
I’m guessing the Wildcats will find a way, 38-34.
But I wouldn’t bet a nickel on it.
NOTES: Fans can welcome UK head coach Mark Stoops and the 2013 Wildcats as they enter LP Field at 3:45 p.m. CT and 4:45 ET Saturday. The Wildcats will enter the stadium between Gates One and Two at the Northeast Bus Inset.
The UK Alumni Association is hosting a pre-game tailgate event at the stadium at 3:30 CT and 4:30 ET outside the south end zone at LP Field. Admission is $10 for students, $15 for UK Alumni Association members and $20 for non-members. Alumni and other fans will have a barbeque dinner, with appearances by UK’s band and cheerleaders. Make reservations at www.ukalumni.net/lpfield or call 859-257-8905.