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Countdown Q&A, Week 1 - WKU

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Charlotte at Western Kentucky Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to another season of the weekly Q&A series where yours truly, CardinalStrong, brings out the inner thoughts and deepest secrets from from those who cover our weekly opponent. Sometimes things get weird, but everything worth doing is worth doing uncomfortably. I’ll go easy on our week one victim contributor.

To kick off the 2020 Season Card Chronicle welcomes in Ross Shircliffe from ‘The Towel Rack’ to discuss the Cards and the Toppers battling it out in front of 60,000.... 18,000..... 12,000... at Cardinal Stadium.

1. Last year when the Cards and Toppers met I walked away impressed with WKU and how they battled for basically 3 out of the 4 quarters. I think Helton is doing a good job so far in getting that program where many expect it to be year in and year out. While just about anything would have been an upgrade from Mike Sanford, WKU has to be excited about their future with Helton, right?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Western Kentucky at Marshall Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Helton has been a home run thus far and has more than justified athletic director Todd Stewart’s quick hook on Sanford. He reinstilled discipline and confidence in the program that instantly disappeared once Sanford took over for Brohm. WKU is now expected to seriously compete for the 2020 Conference USA title and the program is more or less back on track to where it was post-2016. WKU fans are rightfully excited for the foreseeable future with him at the helm but also know that the school is a consistent stepping stone for future P5 coaches (Brohm, Petrino, Taggart). If he lives up to expectations this year then it will only be a matter of time (2021 or 2022) until he heads off to higher-paying pastures and we’ve got to hope that his replacement is the right hire to keep the program’s momentum (eight bowl-eligible seasons in nine years) going.

2. The big question for Western this season was trying to replace some pretty amazing QB play from Arkansas transfer Ty Storey, who came in with Helton last year and put up some solid numbers for the offense. Recently Helton announced that another transfer would be the starting signal caller as the ex-Maryland QB Tyrrell Pigrome takes on that role in Week 1 against UofL. What should Cards fans know about the man they call “Piggy T”?

WKU was linked to some big-name QB transfers (Jarren Williams, JT Daniels) this offseason but ultimately ended up with the former Terp Pigrome. Piggy has some similarities to Storey in that he has lots of big-game experience playing parts of four seasons in the Big Ten. He helped Maryland beat Texas in the 2017 opener (51-41) and almost beat Ohio State in 2018 (losing 51-52 in overtime) but has struggled with injuries throughout most of his career. He is known for his running ability and his big arm but has had trouble with accuracy as he only has 9 touchdowns to 10 interceptions (and only 56.7 % completion percentage) over his four years at Maryland. I look for Helton to put Pigrome in low-pressure situations utilizing his scrambling ability to get easy yards and then using short passes (to returnees Jahcour Pearson & Joshua Simon) to get him into a rhythm. If that works then Helton will then utilize his big arm on a few deep balls to try to catch the Cardinals napping as the game goes on.

3. While the offense had some success, the defense was once again the story of 2019 as WKU finished in the Top 25 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just a tick over 20 points/game. Are the Toppers fielding another Top 25 caliber defense in 2020? Who are a couple of names to look out for?

WKU returns 9 of 11 starters from 2019 and has bolstered depth throughout the unit (most importantly getting UK transfer Eli Brown back from injury). On top of that, they somehow kept Defensive Coordinator Clayton White in the fold despite Power 5 interest. The combination of returning production, depth, staff continuity, and schedule means that a repeat from 2019 isn’t just attainable it’s expected. That all starts with the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the year DeAngelo Malone. The senior defensive end made plays all over the field totally 99 tackles to go along with 11.5 sacks. He and edge partner Juwaun Jones (7 sacks) should pose a sizable challenge to UofL’s new offensive tackles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Western Kentucky at FAU Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Linebacker Kyle Bailey is a tackling machine (110 tackles) that also does a great job covering passes (3 int’s). In the backfield look for the safety duo of Devon Key & Antwon Kincade to come up and make plays against Louisville’s tough running game.

4. Louisville is currently on an eleven game win streak against Western dating back to 1975, while Western is currently on a two game win streak against UK before they got too scared to play them (thought I’d toss that in there for fun). Since the SEC decided to eliminate non-conference games (it just means more) this takes the place of the annual ‘Governors Cup’ battle. What do you think we should name this in-state contest since they probably got ‘Governor’s Cup’ trademarked or something?

The Governor’s Cup is a bad name in general especially since Kentucky has so many more good distinct local charms to tie into the name anyway. UofL and UK need to fix that anyway. When it comes to WKU and UofL, the first name that pops into my head is the Bourbon Bowl. However, since Bowling Green doesn’t have the distilling cache of other parts of the State (Corsair isn’t terrible) it probably isn’t the best name available. The battle of I-65 isn’t horrible but wreaks of a manufactured name (see UCF/USF’s War on I4). So I’ve come up with the Battle for the Railroad Track. Both cities were connected by the L&N Railroad for over 132 years as Bowling Green was an important stop while heading south, maybe the teams could find a piece of the old track and paint it half red and half white with each game going with each year’s respective winner painted on each teams side. This would of course be most noteworthy when the winning team takes 5-6 players to lift the section of track after each victory.

5. While I expect some fluctuation during the week the current point spread is Louisville (-11). What does WKU need to do to cover that spread or pull the outright win against the Cards?

The Hilltoppers will have to limit the number of possessions in order to cover and potentially win outright. By keeping Louisville’s explosive offense off the field, it will shorten the game and keep the ball out of the Cardinals offensive stars (Tutu Atwell specifically) hands. Louisville’s defense was downright bad last season (WKU game notwithstanding) so it’s definitely possible for Pigrome and Gaej Walker to eat up clock on the ground and keep the game low scoring. If the Hilltoppers want to win they need to keep the Cardinals scoring below the 30 point mark which plays into WKU’s defensive identity. Turnovers will also help in the regard, obviously WKU will have to win the turnover battle to overcome Louisville’s explosiveness. If the Hilltoppers do spring the upset, I look for them to replicate what they did against Arkansas when they jumped to a big lead early and then forced the Hogs to be one dimensional. For Saturday’s game that would involve making Micale Cunningham throw more than is usual 15-20 attempts per game causing forcing him to become less efficient with the pass and more susceptible to WKU’s pass rush. WKU has the talent to spring the upset on Saturday but it will involve playing a near-perfect game in order to end the 3 game series on a high note.

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Thanks again to Ross for swinging by to give us some insight into what we can expect from Western Kentucky this season. Feel free to give ‘The Towel Rack’ a twitter follow here and check out the site for all your Western Kentucky news and updates.