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Three Things To Watch from Western Kentucky

The Ohio State secondary will be tested by the Hilltoppers

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Western Kentucky at South Alabama Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks into the 2023 season, and Ohio State fans are feeling frustrated. In Week 1, Ohio State did not throw the ball downfield enough. In Week 2, Ohio State won unimpressively over a FCS opponent.

Now we are into Week 3, and here come the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, a team most preseason prognosticators have predicted to win the Conference USA in 2023. This will mark the first ever meeting between the Buckeyes and the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky WR Blue Smith, a former Ohio State player, will be making his return to Ohio Stadium, trying to show up his former team.

Here is where Ohio State fans need to take a deep breath, before they read the next part: be prepared for frustration with the Ohio State defense, specifically the secondary, during this game. It is not a question of whether Western Kentucky will pass, it is more a question of how effective they will be against the Ohio State secondary.

In case you are wondering where I am coming from, here are some statistics to back up my point. After the first two games, Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed has completed 56-of-83 passes for 589 yards, six touchdowns, and zero interceptions. In 2022, Austin Reed led the nation with 4,746 yards passing. Western Kentucky WR Malachi Corley had 101 receptions for 1,295 yards and 11 touchdowns, and led the nation in yards after the catch in 2022 with 975 yards, and Corley also led the nation in missed tackles forced with 40.

Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Drew Hollingshead formerly coached under the late Mike Leach at Washington State and Mississippi State, and anyone who remembers a Mike Leach coached team will agree that those teams were always heavily focused upon the pass.

Now that I have given you some background, below are Three Things To Watch From Western Kentucky when this game kicks off on FOX at 4pm ET...

  1. Will Jim Knowles adjust his scheme for Western Kentucky?

I usually begin with the Ohio State offense against their opponent, but I have placed such a strong emphasis upon Western Kentucky’s passing game that I felt I should start with the Ohio State defense. It will be the Ohio State defense that will be heavily scrutinized by their fans in this contest.

In the 2022 season, Ohio State gave up big plays versus Michigan and Georgia that caused Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to reflect and reevaluate his defensive schemes this offseason. Considering that Western Kentucky will throw continually, here is an opportunity for Knowles to demonstrate that he truly did learn from the mistakes of 2022.

As I wrote up above, it is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘how much’ will Western Kentucky pass against Ohio State. A key defensive strategy that I will be watching for is if Ohio State plays their safeties back, keeping all of the Western Kentucky receivers in front of them. Western Kentucky may be able to keep completing passes, but those yards will be more difficult to gain as the field gets smaller and smaller, especially in the red zone.

2. How effective will Ohio State’s offense be against Western Kentucky?

Western Kentucky has given up 24 points to South Florida and 22 to Houston Christian in their first two games of the season. No disrespect to either of those teams, but neither of those teams have the type of offensive firepower that the Buckeyes have on their roster.

Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord was named as the starter by Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, and McCord should be able to flourish in a home game, knowing that he is “the guy” and will be playing the entire game. McCord has a strong rapport with his high school teammate Marvin Harrison Jr., and it will not be surprising if McCord continues to target Harrison in the passing game, as he did last week versus Youngstown State.

3. Western Kentucky’s Kendrick Simpkins

Western Kentucky’s leading sacker is defensive back Kendrick Simpkins. That should give you an idea about the prowess of the Western Kentucky defense. Considering the challenges the Ohio State offensive line has had in the first two games of the season, and how Western Kentucky’s defense has not demonstrated an ability to shut down their opponents, it will not be surprising if Simpkins is sent on blitzes to try and disrupt the Ohio State offense.

Keep an eye on if Ohio State can make Western Kentucky pay dearly if they blitz Simpkins and someone is left completely wide open for a big play by the Buckeyes.

As I wrote up above, be prepared for frustration on the Ohio State defensive side of the ball. Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong, but Western Kentucky has been able to put points on the board in 2022 versus Indiana (33-30 OT loss) and Auburn (41-17 loss), and the Ohio State secondary has not yet truly been tested this season. Look for Ohio State to put up points, but the Hilltoppers are going to cause some angst.

I have it Ohio State 42, Western Kentucky 20.