Cats Hope to Start Stoops Era With Revenge Win Over Western Kentucky
In the almost full year since Western Kentucky University football players celebrated on the Commonwealth Stadium field following an overtime winversus UK, much has changed about both programs.
Both teams have new head coaches. Both teams could start new quarterbacks on Saturday. Both teams lost their leading receiver from that game to graduation.
UK players say they’re focused on starting program’s new era on the right foot, but several acknowledge that one leftover from the 2012 season is the feeling while the Hilltoppers celebrated after a trick play on a two-point conversion sent them to the upset win.
“You can’t go in anybody’s house and do what you want,” said senior tailbackRaymond Sanders. “That’s something that we’re not going to take lightly, but we’ve got to prepare first. If we don’t prepare, all that doesn’t mean anything.”
Being prepared for what to expect from their opponent will be a more difficult task than usual for both teams this week.
Western Kentucky features new head coach Bobby Petrino, who did not coach in 2012 after being fired by Arkansas but has a reputation as one of the best offensive minds in the country. The Hilltoppers’ defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, has served in that position at Southern California and Washington previously but worked in an off-the-field recruiting position for Arkansas last season.
Meanwhile, Mark Stoops will be coaching in his first game as a head coach for UK. Defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot‘s only previous experience in calling plays came in two games at the end of the 2012 season for Florida State after Stoops had accepted the UK job. Neal Brown is entering his sixth season as an offensive coordinator but he may feature a slightly different scheme than he did at previous stops while he adapts to the current players on UK’s roster.
The new faces at Western Kentucky have led UK coaches to balance time between watching film of the Hilltoppers’ coaches at their previous stops and the current WKU personnel playing for the previous staff. Still, the UK coaches have appeared to narrow in on several characteristics they can expect from Western Kentucky.
What does a Petrino offense look like?
“I think he does a nice job of taking his shots,” Stoops said. “He sets up his shots, and he can get the ball down the field and get some chunks.”
And Holt’s defense?
“They are sound. They do a lot of zone blitzing, a lot of bear front on video,” Brown said. “I expect to see some of that. He’s done some things that can get you off schedule, especially when you get down in the red zone.”
Petrino and his staff will have the benefit of using playmakers with a history of production at WKU.
Senior running back Antonio Andrews is on the preseason watch list for the Paul Hornug Award, Maxwell Award, Doak Walker Award and Walter Camp Award. He rushed for 1,728 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012.
Senior linebacker Andrew Jackson is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Award, Butkus Award and Rotary Lombardi Award. He was named the 2013 Sun Belt Conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year after totaling 122 tackles, including 17 and one-half tackles for a loss and two sacks, as a junior.
The Hilltoppers also feature a Jim Thorpe Award watch list member in junior cornerback Jonathan Dowling and Rimington Trophy watch list member in senior center Sean Conway.
Andrews may represent a particularly difficult matchup for a UK team that ranked 10th of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference in rushing defense in 2012. He rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns in WKU’s win versus the Cats last season.
“He’s a heck of a player, does a lot of good things,” Stoops said. “Obviously a tremendous running back. I’m sure he’ll be looking to catch the ball even more in this style of offense than he has, but he’s a good receiver. He’s a very good runner and punt returner, kick returner. Does everything.”
Petrino’s teams have averaged 261.8 rushing yards per game in five games against UK. He is 4-1 in those matchups, including a 4-0 mark in season openers against the Cats while coaching at Louisville.
Petrino has coached his teams to seven bowl games in eight seasons as a head coach, including two BCS games. He also spent part of one season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. Petrino arrives as Western Kentucky looking for redemption after being fired at Arkansas for an on-the-field scandal.
It is that previous coaching success that had some fans petitioning for Petrino to be hired after Joker Phillips was fired last season. Stoops was hired in Novemeber, and Petrino was hired by WKU two weeks later.
“I don’t know him personally,” Stoops said. “I have never played against him. Just watching him, you can see he’s a great play caller and very good offensive mind. Obviously, has had a great deal of success.”
Considering last season’s result, Petrino’s history versus UK and the beginning of the Stoops Era, a win versus Western Kentucky would likely represent a more significant victory for the Cats than in most seasons.
The new Wildcat head coach is doing nothing to downplay the game’s importance.
“I’ve not shied away from that question,” Stoops said. “I think it’s very important. There’s a lot of excitement around our program and around the state, and nationally really. It’s time for us to go out and prove it and see what we’re all about. I’m excited, and I think our team will be as well.”
UK and Western Kentucky kickoff at 7 p.m. EDT in Nasvhille at LP Field. The game will be televised on ESPNNews.
Written by Jon Hale
Photo: WKU safety Jonathan Dowling, who had three interceptions vs. UK last season, celebrates after the win vs. UK. (File photo by Jon Hale)