Western Kentucky offense to present formidable challenge for IU football

After already seeing a pair of current top-10 teams in the first three weeks of the season, Indiana likely wouldn’t have asked for this if it could get a scheduling redo.

A Saturday night road game at Group of Five FBS opponent is no picnic for anyone.  Oh, and then there is this Western Kentucky offense.

The Hilltoppers returned zero passing yards from their 2020 offense, but few programs turned to the transfer portal like WKU.  Of the 108 players on their 2021 roster, 28 of them (26%) are incoming transfers. Of the 28, 16 are coming directly from FBS programs –10 from Power
Five programs and six from Group of Five teams.

And then there are the four from the Houston Baptist offense — and their former offensive coordinator.

Graduate transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe’s 10,004 passing yards at Houston Baptist from 2017-to-2020 led all active Division I passers to begin the season. Now at 10,863 after 424 passing yards vs. UT Martin and then 435 at Army top open the 2021 campaign, Zappe still tops the list.

Zappe was joined in Bowling Green by four other recent Huskies-turned-Hilltoppers in offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zach Kittley, as well as star wide receivers Ben Ratzlaff, Jerreth Sterns and Josh Sterns.  Jerreth Sterns leads WKU in receptions with 16 for 278 yards and four touchdowns in just two games.

Operating under the direction of Kittley’s air-raid system, IU will face it’s most complex defensive test of the season.  It is a challenge no one could have seen coming when a three-game series with the Hilltoppers was scheduled in 2015.

“They’ll have a great crowd there, being a night game, and a very good football team,” head coach Tom Allen said.  “The No. 1 passing offense in the country right now, No. 1 in 3rd down conversions, as well, and those two [statistics] kind of go together. They throw the ball as well as anybody in this country right now.”

After a strong start against Cincinnati, Indiana’s defense struggled once All-American linebacker Micah McFadden was ejected late in the first half.  Indiana needs its defense to set the tone while the offense and quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. try to clean up mistakes.

But setting the tone won’t be easy for defensive coordinator Charlton Warren’s unit with everything Kittley and the WKU offense will send their way.

“For our guys, it’s a tremendous challenge to go out there and to be able to execute,” Warren said.

“We haven’t had the challenge of four open looks, empty, gadgets, trick plays, flea flickers, mayday formations, you name it they give it to you.  We’re going to have to be a defense that’s locked in, communicates great, expects anything, tempo, they do it all.”

Since he sat out the entire second half after being ejected for targeting against Cincinnati, McFadden is eligible to play the entire game on Saturday night.

Zappe has thrown 41 interceptions in his career including two this season, so Indiana can force him into mistakes.  McFadden believes a major factor will be for the IU defense to keep everything in front of them and rally to the football.  The longer the drive, the more likely the Hoosiers’ defense can impose its will.

“They’re looking to take shots and threaten you down the field, so we definitely have to be on point on the back end and communicate and be on the same page so we can cover them over the top,” McFadden said.

Indiana and Western Kentucky begins at 8 p.m. Eastern in Bowling Green, Ky.  The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network.

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