As far as entertainment value, there was no better ticket in college football late last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated Marshall in overtime and then defeated Central Michigan in a bowl game. The two games totaled 230 points and each were decided by one point. With seven starters — including a quarterback and running back — returning on offense, WKU is built for fireworks again.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2015
Conference USA opponents, especially the defensive coordinators, must have gasped when the NCAA granted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth season with a medical hardship waiver. Combined with running back Leon Allen, no QB-RB duo in FBS history has matched their staggering numbers of last season. Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, and Allen ran for 1,542, giving them a combined 6,372 yards, surpassing the previous record of 5,840 yards set by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III (4,293) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547) in 2011.
The Hilltoppers set or tied 50 offensive team and individual records. Only five quarterbacks since 1956 have thrown more than Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes that also led the nation.
So much for the Hilltoppers’ offense taking a step back with the departure after one year of coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville. Rookie coach Jeff Brohm put the offense into an even higher gear, and more of the same can be expected with the return of three starters on the line — left tackle Forrest Lamp and guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams.
Also back is Doughty’s favorite target, senior receiver Jared Dangerfield, who had a school-record 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen also is a receiving threat; his 476 yards pushed him over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
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Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2015
The Hilltoppers have a lot of catching up to do on the opposite side of the ball. The return of seven starters, plus the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris, should improve a unit that nationally ranked 120th in total defense and 121st in scoring defense.
The top four tacklers return, including senior middle linebacker Nick Holt, the heart and soul of the defense. The son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt Sr., Holt had 111 tackles. Also returning to flank Holt at outside linebacker is senior Dejon Brown, who was second on the team with 78 tackles.
Morris isn’t listed as a returning starter for WKU, but he would have been for UAB had it not disbanded its program. At 6'2", 295 pounds, he will plug the middle at tackle after playing nose guard for the Blazers.
Strong safety Branden Leston and free safety Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles. Lesten led the team with four interceptions, while senior cornerback Wonderful Terry was indeed wonderful on his two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns.
Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2015
Kicker Garrett Schwettman and punter Joseph Occhipinti return. Schwettman had plenty of extra-point attempts to go with making 16-of-21 field-goal tries. The Hilltoppers didn’t do a lot of punting, but when they did, Occhipinti averaged 37.1 yards per try. Sophomore Kylen Towner has emerged as a reliable returner on kickoffs and punts. He averaged 22.7 on kickoff returns, including one of 94 yards for a score.
Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.
With all the offensive weapons returning, especially Doughty and Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger.