By Jonathan Stark
It is a rivalry that has spanned over 90 years. It has featured 84 meetings. And Saturday, history will be on the line as East will meet West in the Battle of the Bluegrass for the very last time.”There’s no doubt this adds hype to it,” head coach Dean Hood said. “There’s going to be a lot of guys who played in this game sitting in the stands and saying ‘This is going to be the last time we see the Hilltoppers in here.'”
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (0-1) will travel to Richmond to face the No. 24 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (0-1, 0-0 OVC). Western leads the series 46-34-3 overall, and Eastern is 23-15-3 at home.
This might be Hood’s first season as head coach, but he’s been around the block with Western before.
“One year we lost to them twice in one year. We lost to them in the regular season and then we lost to them in the first round of the playoffs and I remember that stinging quite drastically,” Hood recalls. “The next year we played them at their place and that’s the game I really remember. We were so passionate about winning that game because we had lost to Western two times in one year the year before. We had some highly motivated players and coaches, and I remember how good we felt after that win down at Western.”
The season Hood recalled was the 1997 season. Western beat Eastern 37-21 in the regular season and then again 42-14 in the first round of the playoffs. The following season Eastern beat Western 27-16.
In recent years Western has chosen to move from FCS to FBS, thus terminating the Eastern/Western rivalry due to Sun Belt Conference rules that prohibit FBS schools from playing at FCS schools. And since Eastern has declined to play at Western every year, the rivalry will come to an end.
In last season’s Battle of the Bluegrass, Western won 26-6 in Bowling Green. Eastern’s only points were two field goals by Taylor Long. Western’s defense was at full throttle, recording a safety, blocking a punt, and returning the block for a touchdown. Western lost 14 starters from last season.
The Colonels and the Hilltoppers are both coming off season-opening losses. The Colonels fell to Cincinnati 40-7 last Thursday and the Hilltoppers lost to Indiana 31-13 on Saturday.
“(Western’s) a very good football team. They’re a I-A football team. They played some good teams last year,” Hood said. “I like our football team. I think we’re in good shape. We had good focus coming out of the Cincinnati game and that’s the thing you have to look at. I think adversity reveals character. We went through a tough game, and early on this week they’re showing me what they’re made of.”
After seeing Big East and Big Ten speed on the field last week, both teams should see a huge difference in game play this Saturday.
On the offensive side of the ball for Western, sophomore Louisville native K.J. Black will be taking the snaps at quarterback. Last week, Black was 19-31 with 219 yards and a touchdown. On the receiving end of that touchdown pass was Jake Gaebler, who had a team-high six catches for 81 yards. Allan Holland did just as well, completing 12 of 19 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown.
The two passing performances match up pretty well. The Hilltoppers were more pass-heavy, but didn’t reap any more rewards.
Western’s running game also matched up with Eastern’s. They rushed the ball only three more times than the Colonels, but neither team reached the end zone on the ground. Black was the Hilltoppers leading rusher with 47 net yards on 15 carries.
The Colonels linebackers need to keep an eye on Black, because he has the ability to sit back and pass or come out of the pocket and run the ball effectively.
Eastern tried to establish their ground game against Cincinnati with no success. The Colonels used four different running backs and only netted 48 yards. They also suffered a major loss in the running game when starter Aaron Bradley came out of the game with a knee injury. Bradley will not play this week and his return date is still unknown. Bradley was on crutches following the game.
Even with Bradley out, Eastern has C.J. Walker, H.B. Bangoman, and Kelvin Turner. All three got reps against Cincinnati and have the ability to move the ball on the ground just as well as Bradley.
When it comes to Eastern receivers against Western defensive backs, the Colonels have the edge height-wise and speed-wise. Even though Eastern only had one big pass play against Cincinnati, the secondary skills of Western won’t even be close to the Bearcats. And as long as Holland continues to keep his head on a swivel, he should be able to pick apart the Hilltopper secondary.
Defensive lineman Chris Coy also came out with an injury. Coy had two sacks in the first half before leaving with a heel injury. He is expected to play Saturday.
Eastern’s cornerbacks will have a hard time with Western receivers. Compared to Bearcat receivers, these guys won’t be as good, but will still be a challenge. Western has four of their top five receivers back from last year.
Against Cincinnati Eastern played quite a bit of zone, taking away the middle but leaving the sidelines open, which was where the Bearcats did most of their damage. With Brandon Gathof and Zack Denton deep at safety, Eastern still has that last-minute insurance plan.
“I feel good coming out of the Cincinnati game,” Gathof said. “There are things that we screwed up that are very fixable, just certain alignment and assignment-type mistakes we can fix very easily. On the defensive side of the ball, we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
Eastern’s kicking game has yet to really be tested, aside from Long missing a field goal against Cincinnati Thursday. Logan O’Conner got his reps in, though, punting eight times in the loss.
Western hit two field goals against Indiana. Zack Minturn hit from 29 yards and 40 yards out. Western also punted seven times on Saturday.
Come Saturday, the Eastern offense needs to keep throwing the ball. Holland has great skills and a solid receiving core. He had a very good outing last week, and the drives only stalled when Eastern kept running the ball right up the middle.
Western needs to use Black as a dual threat. When it comes to college football, a speedy quarterback with a good arm is deadly and defenses must adjust mid-play to stop them.
“One of the things we did was talk about our emphasis. We want to be at a 90 percent mental efficiency. And that’s on both sides of the ball,” Hood said. “We knew who to block; we just couldn’t maintain those blocks a lot of the time. Or we knew our reads, but maybe didn’t make a good throw.”
Come Saturday, the Eastern defense needs to bring some new looks that they didn’t use against Cincinnati and respect the abilities of quarterback Black. The Western defense needs to look out for the big play by Eastern. The Colonels’ only score last week was a 61-yard touchdown strike.
“Defensively, what you have to do is focus on the mental reps in practice,” Hood said. “The other side is the film study room; make sure you’re focusing on what’s being said and do a good job of accepting responsibility of your position and watching video tape.”
On paper, the two teams match up pretty well overall. Come Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium, we will know for sure.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. in front of what could be the largest crowd ever at Roy Kidd Stadium. Six of the top 10 crowds all-time at Roy Kidd have been Eastern/Western games, the most recent being 22,700 on Sept. 18, 2004. The largest ever was in 1979 with 25,300.