Ohio State Buckeyes: First look at Western Kentucky

Hilltoppers expected to be the top team in Conference USA

Credit: Matthew Hinton

Credit: Matthew Hinton

Ohio State will be back in action Saturday afternoon against Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers have been one of the better teams in Conference USA in recent seasons and figure to be again this fall.

Here are six things to know about the team and the series:

1. The Hilltoppers are 2-0.

WKU opened the season with a 41-24 win over South Florida then beat Houston Christian 52-22 last week.

That improved fifth-year head coach Tyson Helton to 34-21 at the helm of the Hilltoppers.

He previously was offensive coordinator at Tennessee for a season and spent two years as quarterbacks coach at USC, among other jobs in a career that spans more than 20 years.

2. They like to air it out.

The Hilltoppers are averaging 327 yards passing per game, and senior quarterback Austin Reed was second-team All-Conference USA last season.

He threw for 253 yards last week and accounted for five touchdowns while 10 different players caught passes.

WKU is tied for 14th in the nation in scoring at 46.5 point per game. They averaged 36.4 points and nearly 500 total yards per game last season.

3. They might not be able to stop the run.

Only two teams (Kent State and North Texas) have allowed more rushing yards on the season than WKU.

Teams are averaging 264.5 yards per game on the ground, a huge increase over last season when WKU opponents averaged 148 yards per game and 3.9 per carry.

The Hilltoppers lost five of their top six tacklers from last season, but their best player, defensive end JaQues Evans is back. The 6-2, 260-pound senior was a first-team all-league pick last season and is projected to be the defensive player of the year this season.

The pass defense is 37th in efficiency and 50th in yards allowed (189.5).

4. Phil Steele picked the Hilltoppers to win Conference USA.

The longtime college football prognosticator rated Reed the league’s top quarterback and Malachi Corley one of its best receivers.

Corley did not play last week, but he is expected to be available for the Ohio State game, according to Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.

Steele also rated WKU’s Tom Ellard to best punter in the league.

The Hilltoppers were also the top team in C-USA preseason projections of SP+, an advanced metric published by ESPN.

5. Western Kentucky has two Ohio natives on its roster.

That includes Blue Smith, a senior receiver who was a multi-sport star at Wayne High School.

A four-star recruit in the class of 2018, Smith signed with Ohio State but transferred to Cincinnati in 2019.

He played in 21 games for the Bearcats, including nine last season when he caught five passes for 62 yards.

The 6-4 sixth-year senior caught five passes for 50 yards in WKU’s opener and hauled in three passes for 38 yards and a touchdown last week.

The other Ohio native on the roster is Craig Burt Jr., a senior linebacker from Columbus who began his college career at Urbana University then transferred to Hutchinson Community College before arriving at WKU in 2020.

6. This will be a never-before-seen matchup.

Ohio State has never played Western Kentucky, but the Buckeyes are only 6-6-1 against schools with Western in their name. They beat Western Michigan in 2015 but were only 5-6-1 against Western Reserve in a series that stretched from 1891-1934.

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