Previewing Western Kentucky

Inside The Auburn Tigers takes a look at the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Auburn's game four opponent.

Auburn, Ala.--The owners of a 13-game winning streak come riding high into Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend when the Division I-AA's third-ranked Western Kentucky Hilltoppers make their first appearance against an SEC team since 1942.

The Toppers are 0-7 all-time against SEC schools and haven't faced a team from Alabama since 1995 when they beat Jacksonville State.

Last year's national champions, WKU has picked up where they left off last season with convincing wins over Union, West Virginia Tech and 22nd-ranked Eastern Kentucky to open the season. In three games the Toppers have scored 154 points and given up just nine on three field goals. New Head Coach David Elson is in his first season after taking over the reigns following last season when he was the defensive coordinator.

WKU is led by a strong defense that features speed and more speed up front and in the secondary. Playing a 3-4 defense, something that has become rare in this age of football, the Toppers are allowing just 15 yards rushing per game and held Eastern Kentucky to minus 16 yards last weekend on 27 attempts. They are only giving up 173 yards per game of total defense and are no worse than fourth in any category of the Gateway Conference through three games while leading in eight on both defense and offense.

While they possess speed and quickness, the Toppers don't have a lot of size up front defensively and that's where you can look for Auburn to attack them early and often. Left end Chad Kincaid (6-2, 230, Sr.), right end Getty Cavitt (6-1, 240, Sr.) and noseguard Irele Oderinde (5-10, 240, Sr.) comprise the front three for the Hilltoppers, perhaps the smallest defensive line to grace the turf at Jordan-Hare Stadium in a generation. Kincaid is the playmaker of the group with 20 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four sacks already this season.

What the front lacks in size is made up for at linebacker where 6-1, 250 junior Charles Thompson leads the way. He is second on the team in tackles with 30 and also second on the team with three sacks. His partner in causing problems for opposing offenses is fellow inside linebacker Erik Dandy. The speedy 6-0, 205-pounder has 33 tackles and six for losses through three games. Rounding out the linebacker corps Karl Maslowski (6-1, 225, Sr.) and Sam Sexton (6-3, 210, Fr.). Maslowski has 23 tackles and two sacks this season, good enough for third on the team in both categories.

In the secondary, athleticism is abundant and also the depth to run several different players at you during a game. At cornerback Carl Birts (5-10, 175, Sr.) and Jeremy Chandler (5-10, 160, Sr.) handle the job with capable backup Artis Neal also expected to see some time. At safety Antonio's Veals and Thomas control the situation with backups Darius McCrimmon and East Alabama native L.A. O'Neal solid contributors. McCrimmon was a standout at Osceola High in Kissimmee, Fla., while O'Neal is the son of Coach Jackie O'Neal at Reeltown, where he played quarterback and defensive back on a state championship team.

The size may be missing on defense, but that's not the case on the offensive side of the ball as a huge Topper offense will challenge Auburn's defense with a power running game with a little option mixed in. That begins in the backfield as 6-0, 230 tailback Chris Miller and 6-0, 255 fullback Maurice Bradley will come barreling at the Tigers all day. This season Miller has 320 yards rushing and two touchdowns while splitting time with 5-10, 220 Lerron Moore. The most explosive of the WKU backs, he has 279 yards rushing and five touchdowns this season. As a team the Hilltoppers are rushing for 292.3 yards per game.

Throwing the ball is not the forte of the Toppers with just 417 yards passing in three games this season. The bulk of that has come from starter Justin Haddix, who is 22-45 this season for 374 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Haddix, a 6-1, 200 freshman, has the ability to run the ball on the option as well and will be a key figure to watch on Saturday.

At wide receiver the leader is senior Casey Rooney. The 6-1, 200-pounder has seven catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns this season. He's averaging 54.3 yards receiving per game and 23.3 yards per catch. A big play threat, he has the speed and size to get downfield and make plays. Two other receivers, Shannon Hayes (6-0, 180, Sr.) and Earl Clayton (6-3, 195, So.) have six catches each. The trio has combined for all but seven of WKU's receptions this season.

On the offensive line the Toppers feature all-everything left tackle Buster Ashley. The 6-4, 300-pounder was a preseason All-American by just about every publication and will be a player the NFL takes a long look at next season. He is joined up front by mammoth Joe Washington (6-3, 340, Sr.) at left guard, Ryan Thomas (6-3, 300, Jr.) at center, Anthony Oakley (6-4, 295, Sr.) at right guard and Daniel Withrow (6-3, 300, Sr.) at right tackle. The tight end position is manned by freshman Karl Phillips (6-3, 235) along with senior Tommy Crockett (6-2, 245).

This is a game that should allow the Tigers to wear down the Toppers with depth, but WKU has a very experienced team that has been to Wisconsin and Kansas State in back-to-back seasons. With 16 seniors in the two-deep roster alone, the Hilltoppers are a veteran team and this one will likely be closer than many suspect it will be.

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