Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
Week 3: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
When Western Kentucky makes their way to Bloomington for a week three showdown with Indiana, it will be the first time in the 2015 season that the Hoosiers will face a true test. Don't get me wrong, Southern Illinois and Florida International both present challenges in their own right, but neither should be in the game when crunch times rolls around. If Indiana has difficulty putting either of those teams away, it could spell for a real long season for the Hoosiers. The Hilltoppers on the other hand, will provide Coach Wilson and his staff an honest assessment for how far their defense has come.
Where: Memorial Stadium (Bloomington, In.)
Hilltoppers at a Glance:
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (2nd Season, 8-5 at WKU)
Last Season:: 8-5 (4-4 in Conference USA)
Bowl Game: Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (49-48 Win over Central Michigan)
Hilltoppers Returning Leaders
Passing: Brandon Doughty (375-552, 67.9%, 4830 yards, 49 TDs, 10 INTs)
Rushing: Leon Allen (272 carries, 1542 yards, 13 TDs)
Receiving: Jared Dangerfield (69 catches, 825 yards, 11 TDs)
Why the Hilltoppers could win:
When Bobby Petrino left for Louisville, many believed that the Hilltoppers might take a step back under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, however, this was far from the case. In fact, not only did the team match their win total from the prior year, their offense was hitting on all cylinders. The team averaged 44.4 points and 534.6 yards per game, which were 6th and 4th best in the nation, respectively. Brohm, the former offensive coordinator, enters his second season as the lead man, which bodes well for the Hilltoppers, as their coach should be even more comfortable as the man in charge.
Speaking of offense, between the threat of quarterback Brandon Doughty's arm and running back Leon Allen's legs, opposing defenses will be forced to pick their poison when they attempt to slow down this offensive juggernaut. When you combine Doughty's nation leading 4,830 passing yards with Allen's outstanding 1,542 rushing yards, their 6,372 yards best the previous record of 5,840 combined yards set in 2011 by Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Terrance Ganaway.
Beyond Doughty and Allen, the offense also returns their top two receiving threats, Jared Dangerfield (69 rec. 825 yds., 11 TDs) and Taywan Taylor (45 rec., 767 yds., 7 tds.). Dangerfield (6-foot-3, 200-pounds) is a big-bodied receiver with the potential to give the Hoosiers young, and relatively small secondary fits. The former junior college athlete makes catches over the middle on crossing routes, in the flats on bubble screens, and down the field on go-routes. Taylor led the team in yards-per-catch at 17.0, giving opposing defenses more to think and worry about.
Briefly mentioned, but cannot be overstated is how important the development of the Hoosiers secondary will be in a game like this. With the incredibly devastating news that came out last week about former Indiana safety Antonio Allen, this group faces an even greater learning curve than before. Outside of sophomore safety Chase Dutra's one start in 2014, the Hoosiers are looking at sending three other fairly fresh faces out on the gridiron. Asking this talented, yet inexperienced group of athletes to slow down this elite passing attack is a considerable request. And if the Hoosiers fail to generate an adequate pass rush, this task could be far too much to bear.
Generating a pass rush against this potent offense is also a fairly tall task, as the Hilltoppers see the return of three starters across the offensive line. Additionally, the team only gave up 19 sacks in 2014, which was tied for 25th best in the nation. Therefore, getting a hand on Brandon Doughty will be easier said than done, but if the Hoosiers don't find a way to get some pressure on the 6th year quarterback, there's a good chance he will pick them apart.
Why they won't pull it off:
While the Hoosiers defense leaves a lot to be desired despite showing obvious signs of improvement in 2014 under defensive coordinator Brian Knorr, the Hilltoppers are the only opponent on Indiana's schedule that ranked lower in both scoring (39.9 points per game) and total defense (509.9 yards per game). Senior quarterback Nate Sudfeld and the Hoosiers' receivers will have had two weeks to get on the same page before they meet Western Kentucky's porous defense, so there's no question that Indiana should be able to score at will.
Another factor to consider is that it's a home game, and despite not drawing the largest crowds at Memorial Stadium, home-field advantage can never be underestimated, especially in a game that has the potential to be so close. Beyond playing in front of your own fans, not having to travel is another plus. Players can rest up instead of worrying about packing and taking a bus ride down to Bowling Green, Kentucky the day before.
While the secondary is a question mark right now, the Hoosiers front seven look be one of the strongest groups the team has ever fielded. Getting pressure is priority number one for the team, and despite Western Kentucky's returning experience along the line, the team should be able to make this happen in year two of playing in Coach Knorr's 3-4 alignment. This should be enough to make Doughty uncomfortable in the pocket, forcing him to scramble and dropping his completion percentage in the process.
Although Brohm will be in his second year as head coach, Kevin Wilson will be entering his fifth season as the lead guy and he certainly understands the importance of pulling this game out. This is a make-or-break season for the Indiana, so the added pressure and incentive to come out victorious could not loom any larger than it does during this showdown. That alone should be enough to get the Hoosiers hyped for this match-up.
Should the Hoosiers win? Absolutely they should, but weirder things have happened, and I'm sure if you've followed Indiana football long enough you already know this. I hate calling games must wins this early in the season, but for a coaching staff whose future depends on making it to the postseason, this looks to be one of the top six winnable games on their schedule in 2015.
Don't misunderstand me, this is a very tough matchup for Coach Wilson and his Hoosiers, as all the Hilltoppers' strengths on offense are not countered so well by Indiana's defense. However, the exact same can be said for the Hilltoppers' defense. By the end of the game I believe both bands and the fans will be worn out by this Texas-style shootout, but when the final seconds tick away, the Hoosiers will come out victorious, improving to an undefeated 3-0.
Hoosiers Win Probability: 65%