WKU has a proud football history, from their nine Ohio Valley Conference championships to the 2002 I-AA national championship. Their move up to the I-A ranks hasn’t been quite as glorious. Part of that futility has certainly come from the schedule; WKU has made $50 million in facilities improvements to support the I-A move, and paying for them has meant hitting the road to play Florida, Indiana, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Tennessee over the last few years. It would be hard for a lot of teams to build up some winning momentum against that group, never mind a program in its I-A infancy. The Hilltoppers have gone 4-32 over the last 3 seasons, including an 0-12 campaign in 2009. They haven’t won a home game since 2008.
While the bright spots have been few and far between for WKU, last week offered a glimpse of what school administrators and supporters were probably thinking when they decided to jump to I-A. There was WKU, going toe-to-toe against the in-state SEC powerhouse (relatively speaking), on national TV, in a big stadium, and playing with swagger.
“They supposed to be SEC” is without a doubt my favorite moment of the young 2011 season. There are no moral victories. I understand that. You can, however, recognize improvement when you see it, and build on it. Considering that last season’s game against Kentucky was a 63-28 blowout, I’d say that this year’s 14-3 slugfest was indeed an improvement. Constant improvement will eventually lead to wins, but Navy rolls into Bowling Green looking to ensure that “eventually” is at least a week away.
The Mids faced WKU back in 2009, in a game that was a bit closer than one might expect given the Hilltoppers’ record that year. WKU was a very young team; 57 of the 85 scholarship players on the roster that season were either freshmen or sophomores. Given how well they played, I remember thinking that the return trip two years later– when those freshman and sophomores would be juniors and seniors– was going to be a real challenge. It still could be, but if it is it will be for different reasons. David Elson, who took over the head coaching job from the legendary Jack Harbaugh in 2003 and helped guide the I-A transition process, was let go at the end of the winless 2009 season. He was replaced by another WKU legend, Willie Taggart.
Taggart was a four-year starter at quarterback for Harbaugh, leading the Hilltopper offense from 1995-1998. Those were some of the best offenses in WKU history. In 1997, WKU led the nation in rushing, averaging 332 yards per game. They ran for even more yards per game in 1998 (344.2) and were 9th in the country in scoring offense as well, averaging 36 points per contest. Taggart ran for a hair under 4,000 yards in his career, had 17 100-yard rushing games, and still holds the WKU record for career rushing touchdowns (47). He knows all about running the football. It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that Taggart isn’t running the option at WKU, but prefers the west coast offense. It’s a little less of a surprise when you consider that he spent 2007-2009 as Jim Harbaugh’s running backs coach at Stanford. He served as his own offensive coordinator in 2010, then brought in Florida WR coach Zach Azzanni to fill the position this season.
I’ve often wondered why we don’t see more true west coast offenses in college football. Almost everyone borrows from it at least a little bit, but very few teams run it exclusively. Considering the offense’s roots, you would think that it would be appealing to several schools. After all, as anyone who read The Blind Side knows by now, it was originally developed as a means to overcome certain talent deficiencies. Instead of requiring a quarterback with a rocket arm who can throw the ball downfield, a true west coast offense places more value on timing and accuracy. To that same end, you don’t necessarily want the fastest receivers as much as you want smart route runners who don’t mind going over the middle. With the quarterback focused on getting rid of the ball quickly on 3- and 5-step drops, even the offensive line doesn’t have to be world-beaters in pass protection. Just as the spread option increases Navy’s recruiting pool, so to could a true west coast offense for other teams.
The reason why we don’t see this offense more often, I think, is probably because of how complicated it can be. There’s a lot that players have to memorize, and the terminology can be a mouthful. That doesn’t exactly mesh well with the limited practice time you have in college football. There is a bit of a learning curve involved, and athletic directors and fans aren’t always known for their patience. In the pro game you can develop guys who are with the team for 5 or 6 years and learn the offense cold. In college, your roster gets a complete overhaul every 4 years, and most players only see the field for two. It’s a different world in the college game; one that favors simplicity.
There’s no doubt that the offense has made a star out of running back Bobby Rainey, though. Anyone who watched the 2009 game could see that he would be something special, running for 99 yards on only 14 carries against the Mids in addition to a 13-yard TD reception. In Taggart’s new offense in 2010, Rainey flourished. He ran for 1,649 yards, second-most in school history, and his 137 ypg average was the third-best in the country. That performance earned him the title of Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. Rainey has run for 100 yards in 10 of his last 13 games, a streak that even Kentucky couldn’t stop last week as he added another 105 yards to his career total. I’ve been told that Kentucky is supposed to be SEC, too. Navy, however, is not, and there’s no doubt that the WKU coaches are counting on another big game from their running back.
The problem for WKU is that they’ve also lost 11 out of their last 13 games. Rainey, with 1,879 yards from scrimmage last year, accounted for half of WKU’s offense. That trend didn’t change last week either, with Rainey being responsible for 126 of WKU’s 234 yards from scrimmage. As good as he is, Rainey can’t carry the team by himself. The Hilltoppers need some other element, from either side of the ball, to develop.
In a west coast offense, that element would have to be the quarterback, making this an important game for junior Kawaun Jakes. Jakes is a good athlete who had a career game against Navy in 2009, completing 22 of 28 passes for 276 yards and 2 TDs while adding another 44 yards and a TD on the ground. Big numbers from opposing quarterbacks are nothing new for the Navy defense, but this was still a freshman making his first career start. It was hard not to be impressed, and it looked like Jakes had a bright future running that offense. Unfortunately, he isn’t running that offense (what Paul Johnson liked to call “the NCAA offense”) anymore. Not surprisingly, Jakes struggled a bit in his first year running the new scheme. The Hilltoppers finished 115th in passing offense in 2010. That’s two spots ahead of Navy, but Navy is running the furthest thing from a west coast offense. Jakes completed only 51% of his passes. On the positive side, he only threw six interceptions in almost 300 attempts, suggesting that the problem is more with his accuracy than his decision-making. He almost equaled that total in one game against Kentucky, throwing four more picks. Navy is less likely to bring the kind of pressure that Kentucky did, though. This will be a much better game to measure Jakes’ progress within the offense.
Defensively, WKU might already be there if the Kentucky game is any indication. Led by middle linebacker Andrew Jackson (who you met earlier), the Hilltoppers limited Kentucky to only 93 yards rushing. The Wildcat passing game went only 7 of 18 for a paltry 97 yards, with three interceptions and three sacks given up. The amazing thing about those numbers is that the Kentucky offensive line was returning 4 out of 5 starters from last year. Not only that, but the WKU defensive line was shorthanded with returning starter Jamarcus Allen suspended for the game. He’ll be back to challenge a Navy line that is also viewed as the strength of its team.
WKU’s new defensive coordinator is Lance Guidry, who came to Bowling Green from Miami (OH) where he coached the defensive backs. He also gives one hell of a pregame speech.
Guidry has seen the spread option before, having coached against Georgia Southern with mixed success (going 1-1 against the Eagles) as the defensive coordinator at McNeese State. He uses a 4-3 alignment, but how he’ll defend against the spread is anyone’s guess. We can make that guess an educated one, though. Andrew Jackson might have given us a clue:
“It’s just another football game. We have to come out there and be physical, aggressive,” linebacker Andrew Jackson said. “The triple option (offense), that just means more opportunity for turnovers. My job this week, take out the quarterback. I gotta make sure I get that taken care of.”
Jackson plays middle linebacker. If he is indeed assigned to play the quarterback, then that would seem to indicate that we’ll be seeing a lot of squeeze and scrape this week. I’ve seen it called a lot of things: squeeze & scrape, “pinch,” “blood” stunt. Whatever you call it, it’s where #1 in the count (usually the DE in a 4-3) “squeezes” the playside offensive tackle. It’s sort of a role reversal; he’s actually blocking the tackle from getting to his assigned block, the middle linebacker. When the DE turns inside to squeeze, it looks to the quarterback like a read to keep the ball. #2 in the count ( usually the OLB in a 4-3) then plays the pitch. The quarterback thinks he’s off to the races, but that’s only until he gets crunched by the MLB, who should have been blocked by the tackle but wasn’t. If this is in fact the WKU game plan, there are plenty of ways to beat it. If you can’t block the MLB, though, everything can go horribly, horribly wrong.
One note of interest is that there is a report that WKU will be moving one of their outside linebackers to defensive end for this game. I assume the thinking behind this is to get more speed on the field and to track down slow-developing option plays from behind. The mental errors from last week probably won’t cut it in this game.
WKU has a lot going for it as it tries to establish itself as a Sun Belt contender. Maybe not enough to beat Kentucky, but they aren’t going to be playing Kentucky every week. Navy needs this win to get to 2-0 before starting on the 8-game gauntlet in the middle of the schedule. WKU, if they can beat Navy, has a good chance to start the conference season on a two-game winning streak– something they haven’t seen since 2007. I think this is a bigger game for both teams than it might appear. Navy is the favorite for a reason, but WKU has a lot to play for.