As much as college football is about matchups, schemes, and talent, it also is about desire and pride once the football is teed up. Come Saturday in Fayetteville, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers seek a great opportunity to take down an SEC program, squaring off against a hard-luck Arkansas Razorbacks squad in a late-season gut-check battle.
The Hilltoppers (5-4, 4-2 Conference USA) arrive in SEC country on Saturday going through a two-game slide, but do not let that detract from the team’s potential. In the 26-23 road loss to Marshall; WKU outgained the Herd 426 to 401 but committed three turnovers. It was a similar scenario in the 35-24 loss to FIU last week, statistically on par (448 vs. 444 total yards) but losing the turnover battle again by giving away four possessions to the Owls. Despite the turnovers, the Hilltoppers' passing game is flourishing under quarterback Ty Storey, a transfer from Arkansas. In the last three games, Storey is averaging 318.3 passing yards per contest.
The Hogs (2-7, 0-6 SEC) are suffering through a historic low point in the program, staring down back-to-back two-win seasons unless something changes. The worst stretch ever for the Hogs came when they won just four games in 1931-32 under Fred Thomsen. But even then, they only played nine games in the regular season. While Arkansas was competitive through its first six games this season, the last three losses to Auburn, Alabama, and Mississippi State have been by a 37-point margin of defeat. Western Kentucky can serve as a saving grace or yet another albatross around the neck of head coach Chad Morris.
Western Kentucky at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Arkansas -1
When Western Kentucky Has the Ball
If one believes in karma and has a love for college football, this matchup is for you. Ty Storey returns to his home state with revenge on his mind, seeking to take down the Hogs after trying to win games for them just a year ago. Storey started nine games, playing in 10, and threw for 1,584 yards with 11 touchdowns against 10 picks last season. The interception tendencies have traveled with him — he has five in 202 pass attempts with WKU — but Storey is connecting at a 69.8 percent rate, covering 1,477 yards with seven scores in seven games played. Expect Storey to work over the Hogs' secondary as often as possible.
In addition to staring down a quarterback who knows your weaknesses, the Hogs also must take on Conference USA’s third-best back this season in Gaej Walker. Walker has 783 rushings yards with six trips into the end zone and is a threat in the passing game with 16 receptions for 88 yards. Rounding out the weapons Arkansas must account for are five targets with 200 or more receiving yards. The focus on the outside for the Razorbacks will be covering Lucky Jackson (55 receptions, 766 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jahcour Pearson (51 receptions, 512 yards, 4 touchdowns).
After three blowout losses, Arkansas is now statistically at the bottom of the FBS barrel on defense. This unit ranks 106th out of 130 FBS squads, giving way to 443.2 yards per game. The opposition is rushing for 222.2 yards and throwing for another 221.0. With WKU’s inclination to turn the ball over, Arkansas has to capitalize on sloppy play for a home win.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
With three regular-season games left, there is no time like the present for Arkansas to get a head start on spring football. After going through two graduate transfer quarterbacks, Ben Hicks (SMU) and Nick Starkel (Texas A&M), Morris has turned to redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones to run the offense. In mop-up duty, Jones has looked sharp, passing 10-of-16 for 74 yards with two touchdowns. Expect to see another freshman in the pocket, K.J. Jefferson. Jefferson might well be the future in Fayetteville; he captured the imagination of the fan base last week when he rushed for a score and completed a 32-yard pass in the closing minutes of the State game.
Balancing out the freshman mistakes that may be made in the passing game is running back Rakeem Boyd. Through the trials and tribulations of the season, Boyd has been a standout and ranks third in the SEC with 820 rushing yards. Arkansas will be without their top target for the rest of the season, tight end Cheyenne O’Grady (33 receptions, 372 yards, 3 touchdowns), who was dismissed from the team on Sunday. Three young receivers look to fill the void: Trey Knox, Mike Woods, and Treylon Burks.
The Hilltoppers' defense has been steady all season, holding teams to 317.8 yards per game. The defense gave up a season-high 404 yards to Central Arkansas but held the Bears to 20 yards on the ground. Their worst performance against the run came against Louisville when the Cardinals racked up 206 yards. With Arkansas being inexperience under center, it's a good guess that WKU will load the box to stop the run and pressure Jones and/or Jefferson to beat them through the air.
Mathematically eliminated from a bowl game, the Hogs have nothing else left to play for but pride. In years past, this would have been a counted-upon victory, but after losing 31-24 to San Jose State in Week 4, nothing can be taken for granted. WKU has a chance to secure bowl eligibility with a road win over an SEC team. As rough a season as it has been for Arkansas, the last thing head coach Chad Morris and defensive coordinator John Chavis want to see is a team from the Conference USA ranks celebrate on their home field. The hope for them and Razorback fans is to see quarterback John Stephen Jones live up to high expectations and deliver a win in his first collegiate start.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Western Kentucky 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.