In college football, the cornerstone of any successful team is a solid, hardnosed, high energy, hard working defense. The best teams in the nation rarely ever get by on scoring fifty points a game and gaining 500-600 yards of offense while their defense allows thirty points a game themselves and is constantly beat up.
Through the early stages of the 2011 campaign, the WKU defense proved to a national audience it is an elite defense.
In its opening match-up against cross-state rival Kentucky, the defense stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. The Tops held their opponent to just 190 yards of total offense while keeping opposing quarterback Morgan Newton from doing anything without feeling the heat.
Newton would finish the game with a lackluster stat line of 7-18 passing for 97 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, the first of which set up a Casey Tinius field goal that gave WKU a 3-0 in the first quarter.
Coach Willie Taggart was very pleased with his defense and their ability to meet all the challenges that the UK offense sent their way.
"That's the first time in a long time I've seen the defense play the way it did," Taggart said. "That's the way WKU defense plays, and I was excited about that because when we play defense like that, we will have a chance to win a lot of ball games."
Not only did the Wildcats struggle to do anything through the air, but the WKU defensive line and linebackers held Kentucky to just 93 yards. Fifty-eight of those yards were gained late in the fourth quarter when Newton found daylight on a broken play and effectively crushed the hopes of a Toppers come from behind win.
The player on the WKU defensive side who made the biggest impact was linebacker Andrew Jackson. The 6-1, 255 pound sophomore from Lakeland, Fla. paced the Tops with twelve tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and numerous bone crushing hits.
After seeing limited action as a freshmen, Jackson has really stepped up to the plate and been the go to guy for the WKU defense. Jackson has the unenviable task of replacing former WKU stars Thomas Majors, Orlando Misaalefua, and Chris Bullard.
All three players put up fantastic efforts for the WKU defense and were big parts of helping the team ease the pains of the team's jump to the Bowl Subdivision.
Even though Jackson may lack some of the experience, there is no doubt that he can play and be the guy who leads the middle part of the WKU defense.
While Jackson led the charge for the young linebacking core, the experience and poise of the WKU defensive line deserves a lot of credit for the overall success of their defense. Led by senior defensive end Jared Clendenin and juniors Quanterus Smith and Rammell Lewis, who started in place of the suspended WKU nose tackle Jamarcus Allen the defensive line was constantly putting pressure on the UK backfield.
This constant pressure would lead to three WKU sacks, three UK turnovers, seven UK punts, and numerous three and outs by the UK offense. Clendenin and Smith led the way for the line with four tackles apiece while Clendenin also added an interception off a strange play that saw the ball bounce off of a UK receiver, a WKU defensive back, and one of the officials before falling into the hands of Clendenin.
Not to be outshined, the WKU secondary also stepped up and made big plays against Kentucky while allowing just seven completions for the Wildcats on the night. The secondary was led by Ryan Beard and who paced the WKU second level with seven tackles.
Another essential part of the WKU secondary was sophomore Arius Wright who recorded four tackles and got in the way of numerous UK passes. Derrius Brooks and Vince Williams also made big plays for the secondary as they each picked off Newton. Williams' pick set up WKU's only score of the night in the first quarter.
As the Hilltoppers get ready to face their next three opponents in the friendly confides of Houchens-Smith Stadium, the defense will look to bring the same intensity in front of a true home crowd. Up on the hill following the game, WKU fans raved about the defensive performance and seemed really excited about where the defense can take the Toppers this season.
WKU will be tested after an extended break as Navy's vaunted triple option makes its way to Bowling Green on September 10th followed by FCS foe Indiana State on the 17th. After a week off, the Toppers look to open Sun Belt Conference play with a win over Arkansas State who is looking for redemption as WKU beat the Red Wolves last season on a two point conversion that gave the Tops a thrilling 36-35 win in overtime.