NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- WKU looked to make a bold statement as it opened the season at LP Field in Nashville against the Kentucky Wildcats. While the outcome may have not been the one the Toppers had hoped for, they proved to a national audience that they were for real.
WKU had Kentucky on the ropes throughout the game but could not make the plays on offense to give them the edge as the Tops opened their season with a 14-3 loss in this neutral site contest.
"We didn't capitalize," coach Willie Taggart said. "We didn't capitalize on some great field position, and we let one get away."
Despite the fact that the Toppers fell to their in state foe, the team made a lot of improvements and had a much better showing than last season match-up in Lexington where they were beat by a score of 63-28.
One area that the Hilltoppers dominated was the defensive side of the ball. The Tops held their SEC opponent to just 190 yards of total offense, which landed the Tops 12th in the NCAA in total defense, as well as just 97 yards through the air. From the opening whistle to the final seconds the WKU defense proved that they can compete and handle any offense that will come their way.
Taggart said he was very pleased with the play and intensity of his defense against a "superior" opponent:
"When we play defense like [we did tonight], we have a chance to win a lot of ball games," he said
The one player who put the defense on his back and led the charge was sophomore linebacker Andrew Jackson. Jackson would go on to finish the game with 12 tackles including a sack and two tackles for loss. This is coming from a player who had very little playing time as a freshman and has everyone wondering what has allowed him to step up and lead the defense.
"I just settled down and got focused," Jackson said. "I hit the books first, and then I came down and performed on the field."
With his play in the season-opener, Jackson effectively proved that he was worthy of all the praise and recognition he received in the offseason from his coaches and teammates.
"He is a big time player," Taggart said. "He set the tone for our defense, and all the other guys fed off of him, and that was great to see."
While Jackson led the defensive charge for the Tops, he had plenty of help on all aspects of the defense. WKU held the Wildcats to just 11 first down the entire game while forcing seven UK punts, many of which came in the form of three and outs. Senior strong safety Ryan Beard led the defensive secondary with seven tackles as the defense would force three Kentucky interceptions and one fumble, which was recovered by the UK offense.
Another key part of WKU defensive success was the kicking of sophomore punter Hendrix Brakefield who did an excellent job of sticking the UK offense with tough field position. Brakefield would go on to average almost 45 yards on eight punts in front of his hometown fans during Thursday's contest.
"He did a great job," Taggart said. "He had one bad kick, and after that he got it together. We have always though this kid could be really, really good. He has a chance to be a big time punter for us, and he is only getting better."
While the defense proved it was dominant, the same could not have been said the Western Kentucky offense as they too were shut down by the opposing defense gaining just 234 yards of total offense.
One area that must improve for the Tops to be successful is the quarterback position. Kawaun Jakes had another tough game as he completed just nine of 27 passes for a lowly 93 yards while throwing four interceptions, one of which led to the Wildcats opening score of the game late in the first half.
While that interception was not Jakes' fault, the Wildcats capitalized on the interception by taking the ball into the endzone on a three play, 22-yard scoring drive capped off by a Josh Clemons fourteen yard touchdown that would give the Cats a 7-3 lead just before the end of the half.
It was another rough night for the WKU quarterback as he faced a lot of tough pressure from the UK defensive line which forced him out of the pocket on numerous plays.
Even with the pressure, Jakes made a few blatant mistakes that could have had a big effect on the outcome of the game.
Early in the second quarter, Jakes overthrew a wide open Jack Doyle in the endzone, which would had given the Tops a 10-0 lead with the extra point. Instead, the Toppers would see their promising drive end on a missed Casey Tinius field goal that was a result of a bad snap and a shanked kick that sent the ball sailing wide right.
When asked about the play of his quarterback, Taggart saw many areas of his game that could have been improved, but attributed a lot of Jakes miss cues to the pressure of the UK defense.
"Kawaun was getting hit on his back too much," Taggart said. "We got to protect him. He did miss some throws, especially early. I thought that was more of (Jakes) needing to settle down."
In addition to mistakes at the quarterback position, the team hurt themselves when it came to penalties. The Toppers were penalized 12 times for 120 yards opposed to UK's seven penalties for 60 yards. It is certain that the team will need to be more disciplined if they want to have a successful season.
One area of the offense that did shine tonight was the rushing attack. The Tops outgained their opponent on the ground by a margin of 141-93 led by senior running back Bobby Rainey who paced the Tops with 105 yards on twenty-eight carries. This marked the sixth consecutive game for Rainey with at least 100 yards on the ground.
Despite his success as the "go to guy" on the offensive side of the ball, Rainey was very critical of his performance.
"I missed a couple of holes, and I blame myself for that. I have got to do a better job coming out," Rainey said.
Even if Rainey was not completely satisfied with his performance, there is no doubt the WKU faithful was pleased with his 105 yards rushing coupled with an additional twenty-one yards receiving.
When all is said and done, the WKU Hilltoppers did a lot of good things to set themselves up for a successful season that could be capped off with a conference championship as well as a bowl bid. The Tops will look to continue this success on September 10 as the host Navy in front of a home crowd at Houchens-Smith Stadium in a game that can be seen on ESPN3.com.