BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana football is off to a 2-0 start to the season with wins over Illinois and Idaho, and the Hoosiers will finish off their home stand on Saturday with a Noon ET kickoff against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Indiana opened as 9.5-point favorites, but that line has dropped to 6.5 points as of Tuesday afternoon. ESPN's Bill Connelly's SP+ projections give Western Kentucky a 58 percent chance of winning with a predicted score of 31-27 in the Hilltoppers' favor.
Indiana left Bowling Green, Ky. with a 33-31 win over Western Kentucky last year, and Indiana coach Tom Allen said the Hoosiers will need to put forth their best effort for four quarters to emerge victorious on Saturday.
"Our guys understand fully who they're playing," Allen said. "Last year was a dogfight down there at their place. We were fortunate to come out with a win."
Let's break down the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Momentum from 2021
Led by quarterback Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky had one of the top offenses in college football in 2021. The Hilltoppers ranked first in the nation with 433.7 passing yards per game, and they were second behind Ohio State in total offense and points per game.
Coach Tyson Helton and Western Kentucky went on an 8-1 run to end the 2021 season, including a 59-38 win over Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl. After setting college football single-season records with 62 passing touchdowns and 5,967 passing yards, Zappe was drafted by the New England Patriots in the fourth round.
"You see from what they did last year, not a lot of people really even slowed them down," Indiana defensive coordinator Chad Wilt said. "They're explosive. They're dynamic."
And so far, the Western Kentucky offense has remained dangerous. The Hilltoppers take a 2-0 record on the road to Bloomington, Ind. this weekend with a 38-27 win over Austin Peay in Week 0 and a 49-17 win at Hawaii in Week 1.
The Hilltoppers had a bye week during Week 2 as they traveled home from Honolulu, Hawaii, allowing for extra rest and film prep on Indiana.
Following the loss of Zappe, quarterback Austin Reed transferred from Division II West Florida to run the Hilltoppers' offense. He led West Florida to a Division II national championship in 2019, throwing for 4,089 yards and 40 touchdowns and rushing for an additional six scores.
In his Division I debut against Austin Peay on Aug. 27, Reed completed 19-of-33 pass attempts for 276 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. And in Week 1 at Hawaii, Reed went 22-for-31 through the air for 271 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
"[Reed] is a young man with some moxie and some mojo to him," Wilt said. "He's got a strong arm and really can make a lot of the throws. He's got a competitive toughness to him. You watch him in the Hawaii game, and he takes a shot on a targeting call and he pops up. You can see he's a really good player, and he's the real deal leading their group."
Reed's go-to target so far has been Daewood Davis, a 6-foot-2 senior who caught two passes for 64 yards and a touchdown against Indiana last year. In 2022, Davis has caught 11 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. The Hoosiers are also familiar with 5-foot-11 wide receiver Malachi Corley, who hauled in nine receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown in last year's matchup. Corley leads Western Kentucky with three touchdowns in 2022.
"Their receivers are big, talented, long, athletic guys," Wilt said. "They give [Reed] a big catch radius even when his balls are maybe a little off. They've got a catch radius because of their length and their size that they can bring them in."
As for the running game, there will be a familiar face trying to break through the Indiana defense. Running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter was a walk-on at Indiana last season, but he transferred to Western Kentucky where he's now playing under scholarship.
Ervin-Poindexter leads the Western Kentucky rushing attack with 24 carries, 90 yards and one touchdown.
"I just really appreciate [Ervin-Poindexter's] work ethic and his perseverance," Allen said. "He is one of their leading playmakers on offense, so that's exciting for him ... Really proud of him, and yeah, now we have to go find a way to stop him."
The Hilltoppers also utilize Kye Robichaux – 12 rushes, 76 yards and one touchdown – and Jakairi Moses – nine attempts for 31 yards – in the run game. Reed has proven to be a threat on the ground, too, rushing 12 times for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Allen has noticed some small changes in their run game, but he doesn't think Western Kentucky's offensive scheme will look much different than what Indiana faced in 2021. He said Reed has been able to run the offense in a similar manner to Zappe – playing uptempo and stretching the defense vertically with playmakers everywhere.
"They have their system, they believe in it, and they're going to play it to a high level," Allen said. "It's impressive to watch, there's no doubt. Coach Helton has done a tremendous job."
Western Kentucky is known for its high-flying offense, but the Hilltoppers' defense currently leads all FBS schools with five turnovers per game. Nevada has 11 total turnovers in three games, compared to Western Kentucky's 10 in two games.
Junior defensive back A.J. Brathwaite came down with an interception on the first defensive possession of the season against Austin Peay, and redshirt freshman Upton Stout had a pick-six late in the second quarter. Aaron Key and Davion Williams each recovered a fumble, and linebacker Jaques Evans led Western Kentucky with 13 total tackles and 2.5 sacks in the season-opening win.
In a blowout win over Hawaii the following week, the Western Kentucky defense generated six takeaways. Kaleb Oliver led the way with two interceptions, followed by interceptions from Barry Wagner, Juwuan Jones and Upton Stout and a fumble recovery from Matthew Flint.
Linebacker Will Ignont enters his sixth year of college football, and earned a spot on the Conference USA honorable mention list with 53 tackles and 2.5 sacks last year. Redshirt junior defensive back Kahlef Hailassie is second with two sacks and leads the team with two pass breakups.
"They play really aggressive on defense," Allen said. "Have a lot of athletes that do a tremendous job. Very well-coached defensively. Cause a lot of takeaways, a lot of disruption."
Related stories on Indiana football:
- WKU COACH TYSON HELTON TALKS INDIANA: Western Kentucky is off to a 2-0 start to the season with wins over Austin Peay and Hawaii. After a highly-contested game against Indiana in 2021, Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton shared his thoughts on the Hoosiers on Monday. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA DEFEATS IDAHO: Indiana faced a 10-0 halftime deficit at home against Idaho, but the offense found a rhythm in the third quarter to secure a 35-22 win. “We just can’t wait until halftime to start playing football," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. CLICK HERE
- WHAT TOM ALLEN SAID: It wasn't pretty in the first half, but a win is a win. Hear what Indiana football coach Tom Allen said in the post game press conference about the Hoosiers' 35-22 win over Idaho. Read the transcript, or just watch the attached video of the full press conference. CLICK HERE