Football Preview (November 16): Western Kentucky

Over the Hill

Auburn and Western Kentucky have faced off twice in their respective histories, and the Tigers have come away the victors both times. The first came in 2003, when the Tigers won 48-3, and the second was two years later in ’05, when Auburn won 37-14. Western Kentucky is a member of CUSA, and since those early 2000’s matchups has evolved into a a solid mid-major with a fun offense that typically provides a nice challenge in buy-games.

This year, Western Kentucky is 7-4 with a 5-2 conference record. The focus of the team is their offense, who puts up about 38 points and over 400 yards a game. It’s not quite the air raid, but they throw it often, usually 60% of the time. Last year’s Hilltoppers featured Bailey Zappe, now with the New England Patriots. WKU lost Zappe and several wide receivers to the NFL, and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley to Texas Tech.

And yet their offense hasn’t changed in philosophy. The head coach, Tyson Helton, is an up-and-coming offensive guy who’s developed his own spin on pass-heavy offenses, one that he put to some moderate success as the OC at WKU, then at USC and Tennessee. In 2019 he returned to WKU in 2019, and has been a part of the upper crust of CUSA since. They brought in grad transfer Austin Reed, who led West Florida to a DII national championship in 2019, and Reed has effectively picked up where Zappe left off. Reed’s completing 68% of his passes for over 3,500 yards and 31 touchdowns. He has only 7 interceptions this season, pretty good for a guy who’s thrown the ball 441 times. He also has seven rushing scores on the season. He’s not a scrambler by nature, but he’s not afraid to tuck and run when he needs to.

The defense has been impressive as well, though. They only give up 21 points a game, and excel at defending the passing game, as they’ve grabbed 17 interceptions this year. In the run game, they only give up 3.8 yards a carry. They don’t grab headlines, but they are very strong.

Players to Watch For: 

Wide receivers Malachi Corley, #11 and Daewood Davis, #7- I normally only go with one player from either side of the ball in this section, but Davis and Corley have almost identical stat lines. Corley is the leading receiver for WKU, with Davis about 10 catches and 100 yards behind him. The two are tied for the team lead with seven touchdowns apiece. Auburn’s secondly will be tested all game, as both guys boast solid size.

EDGE JaQues Evans, #3- Evans has the unique distinction of being a defensive lineman who leads his team in tackles. Usually a linebacker or a safety holds that distinction. Evans got a couple of Power 5 offers out of high school, but elected to attend Western Kentucky. It was a good decision evidently, because he got early playing time on special teams and became a regular contributor after the Covid affected 2020 season. In his third year, Evans has become a starter, a captain, and probably the best player on the WKU defense. He has 88 tackles and eight sacks on the season. Also, possibly most importantly, his nickname is Donut.

Is it weird to say I was more confident in Auburn winning against A&M than I am in Auburn beating Western Kentucky? At the beginning of the season I would have called you crazy for that take, but the fact is the Hilltoppers have been very successful this year. While Auburn football is trending in the right direction, the problems are still there. Auburn’s offense was bad, A&M’s is just worse right now, and we saw one of the greater defensive efforts in recent memory. Western Kentucky’s offense has no such struggles though. What they do, they do very well, and they can do the one thing that Auburn has struggled to do the most this year. Finish drives. Now, it should be noted that WKU has only faced one Power 5 team this season, a loss at Indiana. That was a close game though, with the final score being 33-30. Looking at records, Indiana and Auburn’s seasons have gone similarly. This game should be really interesting from a matchup standpoint.

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