Football notebook: Are Arkansas State and WKU rivals?

Lucas Aulbach

They’re two of the top athletic programs in the Sun Belt Conference and two of the frontrunners to wear the conference crown in football this season.

The term “rivalry” has been thrown around a lot this week in describing the relationship between the Toppers and the Red Wolves. But are WKU and defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State really rivals?

“I wouldn’t say that, personally,” coach Willie Taggart said to the question on Thursday. “It’s another conference game.

“If anything, I see them as being the champions. They have what we want so we’ve got to go out and play really well if we want it.”

Taggart isn’t alone in that stance. Sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal said he’s not letting the rivalry talk get to his head.

“I don’t really get into the rivalries — if that’s the case, every game’s a rivalry to me,” McNeal said. “We just try to go out there and do what we’ve got to do.”

This isn’t the first time this season that the Toppers have had to answer questions about rivalries. Their matchup two weeks ago with Kentucky was also touted as a rivalry game.

That rivalry was based on geography, as the Wildcats and Toppers both play in Kentucky, while questions about rivalry with ASU are less geographical and more performance-based.

Taggart said the strength of the two programs, rivalry or not, is good for the Sun Belt.

“It’s just good for our conference to have good teams in the conference,” he said. “The more good teams you have the better our conference is going to be. Each team in this conference can win.”

ASU coach breaks down Toppers

Gus Malzahn is in his first year as coach of the Red Wolves so he hasn’t been around for some of the more memorable WKU-ASU games of the past several years.

You don’t need a history lesson to understand the stakes of this game, though.

The Toppers and Red Wolves are two of the stronger teams in the Sun Belt this season and the winner of this game with have a significant edge when bowl bids are given out in a few months.

Malzahn said on Monday that he expects the Toppers to throw everything they’ve got at ASU this weekend.

“We know that they’ve had this one circled for a while,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of starters coming back so we’re really going to have to play well and have a great plan against these guys.

“It catches my eye that those guys are very good at what they do and they’ve got some big-time talent in a few positions that really stand out.”

Malzahn sounded less confident in his own team. The Red Wolves had a great deal of starters graduate last season and are still figuring out their best lineups.

The coach described his team as a “work in progress.”

“I have a lot of new faces. Each week we gather more information,” he said. “We’ve kind of narrowed in our plan moving forward for the conference season. We feel like we just need to keep improving because we’re not there yet.”

ASU defense a concern for Toppers

The Topper offense, fresh off a hot showing against Southern Mississippi, will face a defense on Saturday that has just as much momentum behind it.

The Toppers might have rolled to a 42-17 win last weekend, but the ASU defense allowed no points in a 56-0 win over Alcorn State.

Taggart said the biggest strength of the Red Wolves’ defense is their line.

“They’re physical guys, they run well and they’re active,” he said. “They don’t get blocked and just stay there — they’ll get blocked and fight against the block and keep going and fall in on some tackles by their effort. They give great effort on defense.”

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes called ASU the conference frontrunners and said he’d been studying tape of their games in preparation for Saturday.

“Overall, they’re just a good defense,” he said. “I’ve been watching film on them — they’ve got a couple of good DBs, fast DBs, and their linebackers are very physical.”

WKU’s run defense will have to pay attention on Saturday. ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin is prone to running the ball when he can’t find a receiver to throw it to, and the Red Wolves average 267 yards on the ground per game.

McNeal said he expects the WKU defense to stop the ASU run game.

“They’re fast,” he said. “They like running side-to-side, but we’ll just go out there and do what we do best.”