Eastern Kentucky: Lucas Green
The Eastern Kentucky football team will face their first opponent of the season on Saturday in the cross-state rival Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers are one of EKU’s most bitter and historic rivals. This will be the 85th time the two teams have played each other but the first time since 2005.
Eastern Kentucky’s Head Coach Mark Elder named five team captains last week (R-Sr. QB Tim Boyle, R-Sr. LB Jeffrey Canady, Sr. DB Kobie Grace, R-Jr. RB LJ Scott, and Sr. OL Kagen Skidmore), and the young Colonels will be relying on them heavily against their FBS foe in Week 1. The Colonels will be fielding a very young group after returning only 12 starters from last year’s team and bringing in 63 new players.
The Colonels will be dependent upon their slightly more experienced defense against WKU, including Preseason All-American Jr. DE Aaron Patrick and Sr. DB Nigel Bethel.
Coming off a spectacular sophomore campaign where he was named to the First Team All Ohio Valley Conference, expect Patrick to be a top performer for the Colonels and disruption in the opposition’s backfield. The WKU offensive line is pretty young and Patrick could have a field day early if the Hilltoppers do not make him a focal point.
Possibly the most experienced position for the Colonels is the defensive backfield with Grace and Bethel spearheading a very deep and experienced position for the defense. That group will be expected to slow down WKU’s fast-paced passing attack.
The offense, however, is much less experienced, in terms of playing for the Colonels, but many of the new players have experience playing against FBS talent. Boyle and Scott are two transfers from FBS schools that will have large roles with this year’s inexperienced team.
Boyle, a transfer from Connecticut, will be taking snaps for the first time as a Colonel, but his experience as an FBS quarterback will be a key contribution, especially in the early games of the season. He is a big, veteran FBS quarterback that should be able to lead the offense both on the field and off.
Scott, a transfer from Louisville, joins returning starter, Jr. RB Ethan Thomas and Arizona St. transfer R-So. RB Jason Lewis in a deep backfield. Expect the offense to lean heavily on the running backs and attempt to run the ball a lot early in the year by throwing different looks at the defense to keep the Hilltoppers guessing.
Although this Colonel team is very young and inexperienced in Maroon and White, their experienced captains and leaders will need carry the load for the team early. WKU is the first of two straight FBS opponents for EKU to open the season and it will be a tough test for the Colonels. However, the Colonels bring in a lot of talent that is comfortable playing against FBS opponents that should be able to prepare the team both on and off the field for the Hilltoppers.
This is a great season opener for the Colonels to see not only how they will play this season, but also how they stack up against their FBS counterparts in the upper division.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET on Saturday at Houchens Industries – L. T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky.
Western Kentucky: Ian Teasley
The kickoff to the college football season is less than a week away now, and the state of Kentucky is gearing up for it as usual. But what has flown under the radar of the college football weekend is the renewal of “The Battle of The Bluegrass”, pitting Eastern Kentucky vs Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers currently hold a 46-35-3 advantage over the Colonels.
Since Western Kentucky made the jump to FBS in 2010, they have yet to play Eastern at all, with the last meeting coming in 2008 in which Western walked away with a 37-13 victory. Since then, the Toppers have found success under multiple coaches who would go on to make the jump to a power-five conference school.
Former Head coaches Willie Tagert, now at Oregon, Bobby Petrino, now at Louisville, and Jeff Brohm, now at Purdue, all lead the Hilltoppers to fantastic seasons. Brohm in particular lead Western to two straight Conference USA championships and three straight bowl wins from 2014-2016, and finishing in the final top 25 poll twice, before announcing at the end of last season that he would be heading for the head coaching job at Purdue.
So where does that leave Western Kentucky now?
Going into week one against Eastern Kentucky, Western is a heavy favorite, projected to have a 94.2 percent chance to win, and rightfully so. Western is your defending C-USA champions, and are projected to win it again this year, while Eastern has not done anything of note on the football field in a few years and has struggled the past two, coming away with losing seasons. The Hilltoppers return senior quarterback Mike White, who last year threw for over 4,000 yards, 37 touchdowns while only throwing 7 interceptions. Eastern has a tough task in having to stop White and Western’s offense.
One bright spot that Eastern does not have to be worried about, though, is the departure of Western’s star receiver Taywan Taylor. Taylor was drafted with the 72nd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Taylor put up 1,730 yards along with 17 touchdowns last season, putting him in contention with some of the best names in college football. Unless the Toppers can muster up someone, someone like senior receiver Nacarius Fant for example, to fill the giant void left by Taylor, they will definitely miss him at the receiver position in week one.
Western lost a lot of players from their 2016 campaign, including their head coach. With a fresh coach in Mike Sanford Jr, former Notre Dame offensive coordinator, at the helm, who knows how the team will respond in a game atmosphere. The departures of Taywan Taylor, Anthony Wales, who rushed for over 1600 yards and an impeccable 27 touchdowns, and Nick Norris, who caught over 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns alongside Taywan Taylor, certainly do not do the Hilltoppers any favors in recreating their success in recent years, but with a home game against an FCS rival in week one, and senior quarterback Mike White back under center, it’s certainly hard to see Eastern walking into Bowling Green and coming out victorious.