WKU looks to slow down tempo in clash with Army on 9/11 anniversary

WKU+linebacker+Will+Ignont+%2823%29+signals+the+defense+during+the+Hilltoppers+season-opening+59-21+win+over+UT+Martin+on+Sept.+2%2C+2021+at+Houchens-Smith+Stadium.

Brittany Fisher

WKU linebacker Will Ignont (23) signals the defense during the Hilltoppers’ season-opening 59-21 win over UT Martin on Sept. 2, 2021 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU takes to the road for the first time this season, traveling up to West Point, New York to play the Army Black Knights at 10:30 CT. Saturday on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

“It’s going to be probably one of the most special games I’ll ever get to coach in my lifetime, 20th anniversary of September 11th,” WKU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley said. “Playing army, I have the utmost respect for those guys… playing us that day is the only time I wouldn’t want to see them win. So, like I said, I respect them guys so, so much.”

Slowing the game down 

WKU will walk into Michie Stadium with the best passing offense in the nation. WKU ranks first in passing yards per game and touchdowns while ranking fifth in yards total, only behind teams that have played two games. 

The Hilltopper air attack spread the love to the receiving corps as six different Hilltopper receivers caught touchdown passes in the season opener against University of Tennessee-Martin on Sept. 2.

“Have some fun. That was the biggest thing,” Kittley said about last week’s performance.  “In this offense, we’d like to have fun. I preach it every day. If we’re not having fun, then what are we doing out here? So, it was just fun. Like I said, to get back out there and see us have success and then to see our guys to have that success and have some fun with it.” 

Kittley said he looked into WKU’s 2019 win over Army and how they beat the Black Knights at their own game to better understand how to approach Saturday’s contest. WKU won the time of possession battle by 16 minutes and running back Gaej Walker almost out-gained the entire Army team on the ground. Kittley said “it’s very important” not to wear the defense out with a high-tempo offensive approach. 

The Hilltoppers lost the time of possession battle to UT Martin last week by seven minutes. Army was fourth in the nation in time of possession in 2020. The Black Knights controlled the ball for 42 minutes of play in their season opener. 

“I have to be smart with how I call this football game. [I’ve] got to take care of the team because at the end of the day, if we win 14-7, we win 14-7,” Kittley said. “Definitely keeping an eye on the clock, making sure those guys are not worn down snap after snap after snap. It’s part of my job this week too. Definitely taking a hard look at that going into the game.”

WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Monday he wanted to establish the run game. The Hilltoppers used a running back rotation with graduate Adam Cofield and walk-on, true freshman Kye Robichaux. Kittley said he plans on keeping that rotation going against an Army defense that allowed 3.8 yards per carry to Georgia State’s ground game. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Robichaux said. “I’ve been in the film room studying and out here working extra time, just to be prepared and be ready for what I need to do on Saturday.”

Looking for a breakthrough performance 

The Hilltopper defense will go up against the nation’s most run-heavy offense after allowing 5.9 yards per carry last week against UT Martin. Army ran the ball 67 times against Georgia State in its season opener, tallying 258 yards and four touchdowns. 

Army plays a Wing-T style of offense and an option-heavy offense. Defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said hand placement, eye discipline and forcing the ball outside are keys to stopping Army’s offense. 

That’s the first thing I talked to the defense about. I put a slide up on the board, first thing it said was eye discipline across the board,” Crum said. “You think about it more in the secondary for when they try to throw a ball down the field, but your eyes have to be in the right place for your hands to go in the right place.”

“My hand placement is critical, and my eyes are critical, just across the board,” Crum continued. “I think that’s when you get a little bit nosy. When you want to say, ‘hey, what’s going on over there’. That’s right when a guy runs right by you, and they try to throw the ball down the field, so I think that’s a critical factor for us.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont said the first drive of the game is “very critical.” WKU allowed UT Martin to march 75 yards down the field for a touchdown on the first drive of its season opener. 

“Starting fast, that’s one of our mottos. That’s the expectation, and obviously we didn’t get that done last Thursday with them scoring on opening possession, but we’re looking to change that this week,” Ignont said. “It’s just going to start with practice. We’ve missed some good days together. I think when we get out there Saturday, it just has to be less thinking and more doing, and the more doing the faster that we play.” 

Crum said redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop and safety A.J. Brathwaite Jr. did a “phenomenal job” in their season opener. Both defensive backs combined for seven tackles and one tackle for loss. 

“I think both of those two guys did a phenomenal job,” Crum said. “Not a ton of things that you would have noticed, but just from watching the tape and being clean in their technique and eyes being in the right place and making the plays when they came to them, but we were really, really excited about those two individuals.” 

The third-ever matchup between WKU and Army will begin at 10:30 C.T. on Saturday morning. The game will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.