Every season when fans look at the schedule, there is always one game that fans look at, scratch their heads, and ask "why are we playing them?" Last season WKU opened their schedule with a game at then-eighth ranked Nebraska. In 2008 the Tops traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech. In 2007 WKU opened the season against then-third ranked and defending national champions Florida. This season is no different.
Riding their longest win streak since 2004, the Tops now face a Goliath-like task as they travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to take on number one LSU in front of a national audience. The Tigers (9-0) are coming off one of the greatest college football games in the past decade as they defeated then-second ranked Alabama in overtime by a score of 9-6. Even though the majority of fans have already marked down this game as a loss, head coach Willie Taggart and the rest of the team are not backing down.
"That is a minor league NFL team we are playing this week," said Taggart. "It is a big opportunity for us. A big opportunity. We are going out and playing a really, really good football team. It is a great opportunity for our program and for our guys to go up and see how far we are from being the number one team in the country."
The keys to the game for WKU are 1) convert opportunities, 2) bring the juice, and 3) do not get caught up in the moment.
The first key to the game for the Tops is to convert on the opportunities that they are given. Coming into this contest, LSU's defense is arguably the most complete defense in the nation. The Tigers ranked in the top ten in a myriad of defensive categories including third in total defense (256.2 yards/games), second in rushing defense (78.8 yards/game) and scoring defense (10.9 points/game), and ninth in the nation in passing defense (177.4 yards/game).
Compared to LSU's defense, the WKU offense has struggled at times this season, but has stepped up over the past six games. The Tops' offense is led by senior running back Bobby Rainey who ranks third in the nation in rushing yards (1169 yards) and first in the Sun Belt in touchdowns (12: nine rushing, three receiving). While Rainey may be the work horse when it comes to the ground attack, he is the not the only player that the team depends on to score points. Sophomore fullback Kadeem Jones may only have 56 yards on 20 carries and eight catches for 86 yards, he has been a crucial part of the WKU offense scoring a total of eight touchdown (seven rushing and one receiving) good enough for second in the Sun Belt.
LSU will not be surprised by the Tops' rushing attack, but they will have to make adjustments when it comes to the play of junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes. After an abysmal start to the season, Jakes has played exponentially better the last six games. After the team's 26-22 loss to Arkansas State, Jakes had thrown just three touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. During their current five game win streak, he has completed over 50% of his passes all but once and thrown four touchdown passes to just three interceptions and has yet to have a multiple turnover game during that streak. Jakes will need to continue his improved play as he prepares for his stiffest test of his college career.
"We are just playing better football," said junior tight end Jack Doyle. "That is what it comes down to. Everyone tries to make football so complex, but if you win your one-on-one battles you are going to make good plays. We have been making more plays and just doing our jobs."
The second key to the game is WKU must bring the juice. All season players and coaches have been talking about bringing the "juice," heart and determination, on game day. On paper both the Tops and LSU have had their offensive successes and failures. While the LSU defense has made all kinds of noise this season, the WKU defense has had it highs and lows, but has never been short of the "juice" all season. Led by sophomore linebacker Andrew Jackson; linemen Jared Clendenin, Jamarcus Allen, Quanterus Smith, and Bo Adebayo; and defensive backs Ryan Beard and Arius Wright, the defense will have to have more juice in the fridge if they want to stop LSU this weekend.
As a total offense, LSU ranks just 88th in the nation in yards per game, which is just 13 spots ahead of the Tops. Senior quarterback Jarrett Lee will take the bulk of the snaps for the Tiger offense, but WKU must be ready for the rushing and passing attack of fellow senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson who has appeared in five games this season after being suspended for the first four.
"I guess we just have to have two different quarterbacks on scout team to give us a good look," said Adebayo. "I hope the non-scrambling guy is in there so I have a better chance to get to him."
The LSU rushing attack is shouldered by both sophomores Spence Ware and Michael Ford who have combined for 1,054 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. Through the air, Lee and Jefferson will look to connect with Rueben Randle who has caught 33 passes for 638 yards and seven touchdowns.
The final key to the game for the Tops is to not get caught up in the moment. There is a big difference in playing in front of 22,113 WKU fans and 92,400 opposing fans. The Tops did play in a large stadium to start the year, LP Field in Nashville, but that stadium was only half full and split down the middle between WKU fans and UK fans. The team has been practicing this week with extra stadium noise pumped through the speakers of Houchens-Smith Stadium, but regardless of the crowd and the circumstances, the team cannot get caught up in the aura that is LSU. If they do it will be a long day for the Tops.
When all is said and done, I think LSU will be too much for the Tops. They are the number one team in the nation for a reason. LSU wins 41-17, but WKU will prove that they are for real and not be embarrassed on the evening.