This is the next installment of our breakdown of Navy's football opponents throughout the 2013 campaign. Today we take an early look into the Mids third game of the campaign, a trip to face Western Kentucky.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 28; 7 p.m. EST
WHERE: Houchens Industries–L. T. Smith Stadium (Bowling Green, Ky.)
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (4-4 Sun Belt, 5th place in Sun Belt; Lost 24-21 to Central Michigan in Little Caesars Pizza Bowl)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: Not Ranked
SERIES HISTORY: Navy leads, 2-0. (Last meeting: Navy 40, WKU 14, in game two of the 2011 season)
OFFENSE: If it were possible to start a preview piece with the other factors tab then Western Kentucky would be the team with which to do so. The Hilltoppers made a huge splash in December when they hired Bobby Petrino, he has a 34-17 SEC head coaching record and two BCS appearances, to be the most over qualified coach in Sun Belt history. While we will get to the total effect of the Petrino factor later in this article it would be impossible to talk about the Western Kentucky offense without acknowledging the guy who will be making the calls from the sideline.
What Petrino inherits at WKU is actually an offensive unit which was very capable of making noise even before he stepped into town. Though he will obviously be working with, and if history is any indication winning with, a heavy pass based attack, Petrino has stumbled into a situation where he finds himself coaching one of the most underappreciated running backs in the nation in Antonio Andrews. Andrews was second in the nation in carries (304) and yards (1,733) last fall to go along with his 11 touchdowns. Petrino has always had time for backs of Andrews' ability so expect to see him carrying the rock early and often against the Mids.
Andrews' role will be vital as the Hilltoppers have questions all over the rest of the offense. Petrino signed nine linemen (the most in the FBS) and five wide receivers as part of his first recruiting class to give Western Kentucky a shot in the arm in both units. The receiving corps he inherits is young but not without potential, and all players will expect to see statistical increases starting with junior Willie Mcneal who is the leading returning wide out with 43 catches for 566 yards last fall.
The biggest question mark, however, is at quarterback. The Hilltoppers return just one player with FBS experience, Brandon Doughty, and he had fallen to third on the depth chart last year. Instead it will be a four way battle for one of the best spots in football with options ranging from dual threat DaMarcus Smith all the way to true freshman Todd Porter.
Conclusion: It will be interesting to see if Petrino is willing to risk a decline in his passing game and put the ball in the hands of Smith who is by far the most athletically gifted of his quarterback options. With so many questions on offense it would be easy to downplay the ability of the Hilltoppers to compete with the Mids this year, but with Petrino in charge this is anything but a normal Sun Belt opponent.
DEFENSE: It is feast of famine on the defensive side of the ball for Western Kentucky, who have some real stars as well as an awful lot of question marks entering the season. The Hilltoppers do have the best linebacker, and arguably the best defensive player in the Sun Belt, in middle linebacker Andrew Jackson. Jackson last year had 122 tackles, including 17.5 for a loss, and will be a star on Sundays eventually with his blend of fire and athletic ability. He leads a back seven which has three more starters who could be all conference picks and who are far better than the second half of last season would suggest. Expect this area of the defense to be much better and really test the Navy passing game as well as being all over the field to try to contain the option.
The worry for Hilltopper fans will be that as good as the back seven has the potential to be, it could all be for nothing if the line doesn't perform. Western is replacing its entire defensive front from a year ago, including end Quanterus Smith who put together one of the best seasons in SBC history in 2012. It may be that a platoon is needed to replace his production and, unless one of the young tackles or a JUCO transfer plays far above predicted levels, there is going to be a big drop in production up front and that would be music to the ears of an option team like the MIds.
Conclusion: Very simple question here (really) which will define how the game goes when Navy has the ball. Can Western Kentucky's front four hold the line of scrimmage?
If the answer is no and the Mids are able to move the WKU linemen then it is going to be a long day for the linebackers having to fight off of second level blocks to make tackles. If the answer is yes then that talented back seven will be allowed to run free, hit gaps, and shut down the Navy attack. Should be fascinating to watch this play out.
Other Factors: It's Petrino and his staff who are the news here, not only is Petrino too big for the conference, but most of his staff is too as it features six guys Petrino has coached with before along with outside hires such as former Georgia offensive line coach Neil Callaway who was seen as one of the best in the business just a few years ago. How much this team can coach up the existing players over the summer will determine the fate of Western Kentucky in 2013.
Conclusion: This is the biggest trap game on the schedule. This is clearly a stepping stone back to the big time for Petrino who will win in Bowling Green before vaulting on to a much bigger job in a few years time. It all comes down to how fast he can find, and how comfortable he becomes, with his new quarterback. Hopefully it takes more than three games for all the parts to fall into place and the Mids can ride the dominance of their offensive line to their third win of the season.
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