The Walkthrough: Run defense is key for Hilltopper success

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Jeremy Chisenhall

WKU football certainly won’t be starstruck at any point after Week 1.

The Hilltoppers kick off their 2018 season at No. 4 Wisconsin. It’ll be WKU’s biggest challenge all year, it’ll come under the lights in Camp Randall Stadium, and it’ll be broadcast on national television.

The Hilltoppers are undeniably the underdogs. The point spread at the time of print is 35.5 in favor of Wisconsin. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives WKU a 1.3 percent chance to win.

So how do the Hilltoppers make that 1.3-percent chance become a reality? Above all else, WKU has to stop Wisconsin’s running game. The Badgers have a long lineage of great running backs, and that’s not going to be any different this year, as sophomore Jonathan Taylor will lead the way for Wisconsin on the ground.

Taylor had about as successful a freshman season as one can. He ran for 1,977 yards, which ranked third in the nation and second among Power 5 players. That was also a new freshman rushing record, which was previously held by Oklahoma great and current Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson. Taylor was a Second-Team All-American, and was also selected as an All-American Freshman by ESPN, USA Today and the Football Writers Association of America. He was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, as well as a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.

As if stopping someone with that résumé wasn’t hard enough, Taylor is running behind an offensive line that was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in early August. The magazine touted the Badgers as having the best offensive line in the country. Each member of Wisconsin’s starting offensive line is 6-foot-3-inches or taller, and each weighs 300-plus pounds. Three of the Badgers’ offensive linemen (senior Beau Benzschawel, senior Michael Deiter and junior David Edwards) were named All-Americans last year, and sophomore Tyler Biadasz was an All-American Freshman selection.

The Hilltoppers’ efforts to stop the Badger run game will start up front. It’ll be on the defensive line to neutralize the space that Wisconsin’s offensive line usually creates for Taylor.

“It’s going to be really important to start up front and set the tone in the trenches,” Sanford said after Friday’s practice. “And then allow our very talented linebacker corps to fit the run. I think the most important thing is, against Taylor, if you’re out of your run fit – -meaning a man is responsible for a particular gap — if you’re out of the run fit, he’s going to score. It’s just the reality. You don’t run for 2,000-plus yards if you don’t have dynamic speed and can finish a run down the field.”

The weight up front will fall on the shoulders of redshirt senior Evan Sayner, redshirt sophomore Jeremy Darvin, redshirt junior Jaylon George, redshirt senior Julien Lewis and sophomore DeAngelo Malone. The Hilltoppers have plenty of veteran experience, but Wisconsin isn’t the same size as what WKU is used to going up against.

“I think that’s the hardest thing for us to simulate,” Sanford said. “We don’t have as big of body tight ends, obviously, as Wisconsin does. The scout team offensive line is a little bit different than Wisconsin’s offensive line… we go kind of our good-on-good and give them two/three tight end looks so that we can simulate that.”

Attempting to shut down Taylor is probably the toughest task the Hilltoppers will have all year, but it’s absolutely necessary to accomplish if they want to have a chance at pulling off the 35.5-point upset.

Sports Editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.