BYU has a big matchup 11-6 versus Boise State, but first they’ll have to get past Western Kentucky Halloween night. We talked to Ross Shircliffe from The Towel Rack to learn more about the Hilltoppers.
1. What was the initial reaction by WKU fans when the game against BYU was announced?
The Towel Rack: Fans were ecstatic about the matchup. Trading the canceled Indiana game for a game against a name-brand program like BYU was about as good as the Tops could get with the short notice. Also, the spring showdown between Cosmo and Big Red gave the matchup a little extra buzz that might not normally be associated with a game across the country. Most fans saw the matchup as one of the top games on the schedule for a team that at the time had conference title aspirations.
2. It looks like there’s been a bit of a drop off from the 9-4 record and bowl win WKU had a year ago, what do you think have been the main contributors to the 2-4 start?
TTR: There is no way to spin it, the 2-4 start has been a massive disappointment. WKU had 17 starters back off of that 9-4 team and expectations were very high for a repeat performance at the very least.
The obvious culprit has been the quarterback position where the Hilltoppers have struggled to find a replacement for Arkansas grad transfer Ty Storey. Maryland grad transfer Tyrrell Pigrome has respectable numbers on paper (7 TDs to 0 INT’s) but has struggled to consistently sustain drives and push the ball downfield. He’s also had trouble holding onto the ball (5 fumbles) causing him to get benched in week 4 for Kevaris Thomas. Thomas has stretched the field more but the sophomore has had turnover troubles of his own and wasn’t that much of an upgrade before sustaining an injury at the end of last week’s Chattanooga game (Pigrome should start this week). The lack of a passing game has hampered what was a good rushing attack last season and the subsequent turnovers and ineffectiveness have resulted in an offense that struggles to stay on the field and put up points to stay in games.
The offensive struggles have carried over to a defense that returned almost everyone from the 2019 season. The unit has been much worse in 2020, giving up chunk plays, having trouble getting off the field on third down, and forcing very few turnovers. They still show sparks of a unit that was top 30 in 2019 SP+ but repeatedly get worn down as the game goes on after repeatedly put in bad situations by offensive turnovers. On top of that WKU has played a pretty brutal schedule thus far (four losses to Louisville, Liberty, Marshall & UAB) which hasn’t given a team with growing pains any room for error. On the whole, there really haven’t been many areas that have improved from year 1 to year 2, whether that is Covid related or just bad luck most Hilltopper fans have been scratching their heads by the abysmal start to the 2020 season.
3. Who are some of the players BYU fans should be aware of heading in to Saturday night?
TTR: The number one player Cougar fans should be worried about is defensive end Deangelo Malone. He is seen as an NFL prospect that wreaks havoc in defensive backfields and makes plays all over the field. Malone has 7 tackles for loss (including 2 sacks) thus far despite facing constant double teams and was the Conference USA Defensive Player of the year last season (11.5 sacks). Also, look for senior safety Devon Key & senior linebacker Kyle Bailey to be all over the field making tackles for the Hilltoppers
On offense, WKU’s best threat is probably sophomore tight end Josh Simon. He is a physical specimen at 6’5 240 pounds and has caught 15 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns thus far. Running Back Gaej Walker was a 1,200 yard rusher last season that has struggled mightily in 2020 along with the rest of the offense. He is coming off his best game of the year against Chattanooga where he rushed for 88 of his 199 yards on the season.
4. It seems that allowing sacks, allowing points, and turning the ball over have all been a major problem so far this season. What concerns you the most about the game on Saturday?
TTR: As mentioned above, nothing has gone right for WKU thus far this season. BYU was supposed to be a measuring stick game for the Hilltoppers but now we’re mainly just hoping to keep it respectable and cover the spread. Honestly we really just want to see if WKU can show progress in this one. That will be a tall task against BYU’s massive lines on both sides of the ball. If the Hilltoppers don’t neutralize those advantages, it could be over well into the second quarter.
5. BYU fans have been let down at one point or another every season for the past few years, and a lot of them are hesitant to buy into this team. How do WKU fans view BYU this year, and do fans typically see BYU as more of a P5 program or a G5 program?
TTR: Most WKU fans have kept an eye on the Cougars starting with their opening weekend thrashing of perennially good Navy. The mix of high powered offense and consistently solid defense have caught our attention and it looks like the Cougars are now the best team on WKU’s schedule (one that includes Louisville & undefeated teams Marshall & Liberty). Most WKU fans view BYU as a very good program but more of a G5 program that has a great history but hasn’t had enough breakthrough moments recently to be mentioned with P5 teams. I’d say BYU as a program is definitely a few steps above lower G5 conferences like MAC, CUSA & Sun Belt, and on par with perennially good G5 programs like Boise State, Cincinnati and UCF.
6. WKU beats BYU if ___
TTR: The Hilltoppers play their best game of the season by a wide margin. For that to happen WKU would need to control the clock by consistently moving the ball on offense and not turning it over. WKU would need to score in the 30’s and hope that the defense also creates turnovers which would shorten the game and keep BYU’s high powered offense off the field. Basically, the only way I see WKU winning is for them to jump out to a significant lead (21-0) and then hold on for dear life with the Cougars playing their worst game of the season.
7. BYU beats WKU if ___
TTR: Zach Wilson stays healthy and the Cougars are semi focused early. BYU’s offensive firepower and defensive line dominance should be more than enough to control the game throughout. WKU isn’t built to come back and if the Cougars jump out to an early double-digit lead, the Hilltoppers will be forced to rely on an offense that hasn’t been able to top 24 points all season. If BYU takes WKU seriously they shouldn’t have much trouble finishing with a similar result to most of the games they’ve had all season.