WKU ready to test improved defense against Sun Belt’s best

Junior linebacker Tenerio Davis attempts to tackle Florida Atlantic tight end Rob Housler during the third quarter of Saturday’s game. WKU lost 17-16.

Zach Greenwell

WKU’s defense dwelled in the Football Bowl Subdivision cellar last season in nearly every statistical category.

Nine games into 2010, things are starting to pick up for the unit — and not a moment too soon.

The Toppers (1-8, 1-4 Sun Belt Conference) finish out this season with the top three offenses in the Sun Belt, starting at Arkansas State at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“The team we’re playing this week is probably the most explosive offense in the Sun Belt in terms of what they can do,” Defensive Coordinator Clint Bowen said. “They do so many things and do them well.”

Although it’s only translated to one win this season, Bowen has quietly whipped WKU’s defense into shape with his 4-3 scheme.

After allowing an average of 478 yards per game last season — 118th of 120 FBS teams — the Toppers are 71st this season with an average of 379 yards allowed per game. They’ve improved in just about every possible category, from scoring defense to first downs allowed.

“I kind of hoped it would go faster, but that’s been a learning experience for me, coming in and putting in something completely new to them,” Bowen said. “This whole 4-3 approach was a completely different deal than what they had ever done.”

Sophomore defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen said the turnaround has started in practice, where Bowen “never lets up” whether a play goes well or poorly.

“Last year, we were pretty much in the same predicament that we’re in now, but we were just really going through the motions at practice,” Allen said. “Right now, we’re having practice like we’re getting ready to play Nebraska.”

It’s not Nebraska on deck again for WKU, but it’s an Arkansas State (4-5) team that took Louisville and Indiana to the wire earlier in the year.

The Red Wolves most recently routed Middle Tennessee, 51-24. They’re led by sophomore quarterback Ryan Aplin, who’s thrown for 2,324 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.

Arkansas State is currently ranked 25th in the country in passing yards and 38th in scoring.

“This is a scary week,” Bowen said. “We need to tell the guys right away that they have to get those pats on the back off in a hurry, because you could get embarrassed really quick this week if you don’t show up.”

WKU’s defense put together its best effort against Florida Atlantic last weekend, holding the Owls to 215 yards.

The offense didn’t show for the second straight week as the Toppers lost 17-16, but Bowen said the defense can only worry about what it can control.

“Anytime we go on the field, it’s our job to get a stop immediately, regardless of what the offense does,” he said. “If their defense is stopping our offense, then it’s us against them. We’ve got to beat their defense every week.”

WKU’s last home game of the season against MTSU and a final road trip to Troy will be waiting for the Toppers after Arkansas State.

It’s a difficult way to end the season, but Head Coach Willie Taggart said it’s important for the Toppers to see the rest of this season through so they don’t spoil the progress that’s been made.

“I think these last three games can jump-start a lot of things, and more importantly, it can show our guys that we can do it now,” Taggart said. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘You’ll be all right once you get your guys in.’ I’ve got my guys here. We can do it now … We’ve just got to get over the hump.”