Aulbach: Defense showed grit in Saturday’s win

WKU junior Jonathan Dowling yells to get the crowd pumped up. WKU plays Navy on Saturday on Sept. 28, 2013 at Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. 

Lucas Aulbach

The talk all week leading up to Saturday’s game against Navy was about the match-up between the Midshipmen offense and Topper defense. WKU spent a lot of time in fall camp preparing to face Navy’s triple-option threat, and junior cornerback Cam Thomas said the team watched film from when the teams faced each other in 2011.

Practice made for perfect for the Toppers this weekend. WKU stopped the Midshipmen in their tracks as the Toppers picked up their third win of the season.

The win is impressive if that’s all you know. Navy came into the game ranked No. 36 in the most recent AP top 25 poll, the highest ranking of any team on WKU’s schedule this year. Pile on the fact that the Midshipmen were bringing the NCAA’s best rushing attack with them — they averaged 398 rushing yards in their first two games of the year — and it looked like WKU’s confident defense would have its hands full.

That’s what makes the final score of 19-7 in Saturday’s game stand out.

Navy was expected to run all over the Toppers, who ranked No. 95 in the NCAA in run defense and had given up an average of 31.5 points per game. Instead, the Midshipmen were only able to post seven points over 60 minutes.

WKU benefitted from the loss of Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who left with a concussion in the second quarter, but the Midshipmen have plenty of weapons on offense. Apart from the first drive of the game — the only time Navy was in the end zone — the Topper defense shut them all down. It was an impressive performance from a team preparing to really start its conference schedule.

Defensive coordinator Nick Holt had faced triple-option offenses before, he said after the game, but not since the 1990s. He was pleased his defense improved as the game went on.

“He kids had a little success early and kept going from there,” Holt said. “They kept getting better and more confident. Halftime and third quarter rolled around, and they started dominating.”

It was a defensive performance that was a long time in the making.

The Toppers had studied film of Navy’s offense for months leading up to the game, and it was a common sight to see the defense squaring off against an option offense in Fall Camp. Their training paid off.

“We had a great plan and we worked hard at it,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “It’s something we’ve been working on since spring and early in August, so it didn’t take just three days to get it done.”

The Toppers will look to stay hot on defense Thursday against Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks will be without starting quarterback and 2012 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Kolton Browning, but at 2-2, they stand to gain as much from a win as WKU does.

The Topper defense said they knew they could shut down one of the best rushing offenses in the nation last week. On Saturday, they proved it.