Indiana 2021 opponent profile: Western Kentucky

Indiana begins one of the most important seasons in the history of its football program on Sept. 4. The Hoosiers are coming off a 6-2 campaign and an Outback Bowl berth in 2020 and are expected to be a preseason Top 25 team. We are profiling each of the 12 teams Indiana will face this season as they try to build on that momentum

Opponent: Western Kentucky

Date/Time/TV: Sept. 25, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Location: Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, Ky.

2020 record/bowl result: 5-7 overall, 4-3 in Conference USA. Lost to Georgia State 39-21 in Lending Tree Bowl.

Returning Lettermen: 52 (22 offense, 28 defense, 2 special teams)

Lettermen Lost: 28 (14 offense,11 defense, 3 special teams)

Returning Starters, Offense (5): WR Craig Burt Jr., WR Mitchell Tinsley, TE Josh Simon, LT Cole Spencer, RT Mason Brooks

Staters Lost, Offense (6): Tyrell Pigrome, RB Gaej Walker, WR Xavier Lane, LG Tyler Witt, C Seth Joest, RG Jordan Meredith.

Offensive Outlook: After finishing 12th in 13-team Conference USA in both scoring and total offense in 2020 with 19.0 points and 290.3 yards per game, the Hilltoppers are turning to the Air Raid scheme to try to turn it around. Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton hired Zach Kittley, offensive coordinator at Houston Baptist and a former assistant at Texas Tech who was part of the staff that coached Patrick Mahomes Jr. Last season, Houston Baptist played just four games and lost three of them, but the Huskies threw for 459.5 yards per game. Kittey not only brought the scheme with him to Bowling Green, Ky., he also brought his quarterback Bailey Zappe, who threw for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns against one interception in those four games, as well as small but speedy wide receivers Jerreth and Josh Sterns, brothers from Waxahachie, Texas and wide receiver Ben Ratzlaff from San Diego. Jerreth caught 47 passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns last season — again, in just four games. Meanwhile, Josh caught 13 passes but turned those into 403 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 31 yards per reception. Ratzlaff caught 29 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns, averaging just short of 100 yards per game. Along with those transfers, the Hilltoppers also added transfer running back Kendall Abdur-Rahman, who spent two years at Notre Dame, and quarterback Carson Baker from San Diego State. The additions should make for a very different offense than Western Kentucky’s 2020 version.

Returning Starters, Defense (5): DE DeAngelo Malone, DT Jeremy Darvin, DE Juwuan Jones, LB Nick Days, S Antown Kincade

Starters Lost, Defense (6): DT Ricky Barber, LB Kyle Bailey, LB Eli Brown, CB Roger Cray, CB Dionté Ruffin, Nickel Trae Meadows, S Devon Key.

Defensive Outlook: Maurice Crum Jr, a former Notre Dame linebacker and captain, was promoted to defensive coordinator over the offseason. He loses several important pieces that made the Hilltoppers the fifth-best defense in Conference USA in terms of both scoring and total defense in 2020, but does return the defense’s most productive player. DeAngelo Malone was a first-team all-conference pick last season, registering six sacks and 11 tackles for loss to finish in the league’s top 10 in both categories. Safety Antwon Kincade is also earning preseason all-conference discussion after recording 85 tackles including 5.5 for loss and eight pass break-ups last season.

Special Teams Returners (4): PK Brayden Narveson, KO Cory Munson, P/H John Haggerty, LS Matt Baldeck

Special Teams Outlook: Brayden Narveson and John Haggerty were both second-team All-Conference USA last season with Narveson making 13 of his 14 field goal attempts and Haggerty finishing second in the conference with 45.7 yards per punt. With Munson also back after averaging 58.5 yards per kickoff, the Hilltoppers are in good shape in the specialists positions. They had strong coverage units on both the kickoff and punt squads, but the return units ranked last in the conference in both kickoff and punt returns. They return several returners from last year’s squad but need more production there.

Overall outlook: The Hoosiers will be facing a tough environment heading on the road to play a mid-major program in a primetime game. The wide-open offense Kittley brings will certainly provide some challenges. But obviously, the Hoosiers’ defense can create havoc in the same way the Air Raid offense can, and Indiana should carry a talent-edge drastic enough to deal with whatever it faces in this one. That being said, the Hoosiers will still have to be on their toes in Bowling Green, especially if the Cincinnati game doesn’t go their way.

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