At first glance, it may not seem like the Wisconsin Badgers and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have anything in common on the football field.
Wisconsin, of the Big Ten, versus Western Kentucky, of the Gateway Conference. Wisconsin, a nationally respected powerhouse in the 1990s, versus Western Kentucky, nationally unnoticed throughout its history. However, upon further notice, there is one big similarity between the two. The Badgers have often been known for running an offensive system based on grinding it out on the ground and wearing out their opponents. Western Kentucky, which has been in the top 10 in the nation in rushing for the last 10 years, has adopted that same philosophy.
While the three teams the Hilltoppers have played this season may not be national powerhouses, running for 1,030 yards as a team in three games, as they have done, is nonetheless impressive. In fact, it has helped the Hilltoppers garner a No. 8 ranking in NCAA Division I-AA play.
Western Kentucky is paced by a slew of running backs, led by the senior trio of Curtis Hamilton, DeWayne Gallishaw, and Keith Brooks, who have combined for 435 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
However, the heart and soul of the Hilltopper running game lies in the legs of senior quarterback Jason Johnson, who leads the team in total rushing with 296 yards and two touchdowns. The ability of the quarterback to run poses a threat for the Badgers in the same way that Badger quarterback Brooks Bollinger’s legs pose problems for other teams.
In Hilltopper head coach Jack Harbaugh’s I-bone offensive system, however, passing usually takes a backseat to running. Johnson leads the team in passing with a modest 117 yards and one touchdown.
Sophomore Shannon Hayes leads the team in receiving with just three catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. However, the ball-control offense plays into the hands of the Hilltoppers’ smash-mouth defense, ranked No. 1 in their conference this season, which has allowed just 24 total points on the year.
The team is led by a veteran linebacker corps and secondary, paced by sophomore linebacker Erik Dandy’s 28 total tackles.
One other thing about Western Kentucky’s roster is definitely worth noting: The Hilltoppers may very well have the only roster in the nation containing two players from American Samoa. Kris Mau, a freshman linebacker, and T.J. Maui’a, a freshman defensive back, both hail from Fagaitua High School on the island country of the American Samoa.
For the Badgers, the key may be retaining the momentum gained from winning their Big Ten opener against Penn State. Wisconsin, after running for 355 yards against the Nittany Lions, should be able to effectively pound the ball against Western Kentucky. Anthony Davis will definitely look to add to his nation-leading rushing total after gaining 204 yards against the Nittany Lions. According to UW offensive coordinator Brian White, whether the Badgers pound the ball consistently against Western Kentucky depends on the flow of the game.
“The flow of a game is always changing,” White said. “We didn’t expect to run the ball quite the way we did last week, but we got in a nice rhythm, and if it stays like that (on Saturday), then we’ll stay in [the game]. If it isn’t, we’ll throw it around a little bit.”
Whether Lee Evans gets more catches than the single one he got against Penn State remains to be seen, but his lack of productivity in that game was largely due to the Nittany Lions’ defense, which was geared to stop him, not to shift the game plan.
“[Penn State] did a nice job of making sure [Evans] was doubled outside,” White said. “They made him a nonfactor in the game, so, consequently, we made Anthony (Davis) and Brooks (Bollinger) and other people factors.”
One of those other factors was tight end Mark Anelli, who caught four passes for 28 yards and a touchdown.
“If you start to double a receiver, someone’s going to be singled, and Mark [Anelli] was singled quite frequently in the game,” added White.
On defense, the key for the Badgers is obviously shutting down Western Kentucky’s prolific running game.
According to NCAA rules, Division I-A teams are allowed one game against Division I-AA teams once every four years. Western Kentucky, therefore, represents this opponent for the Badgers, and one can’t help but wonder if Wisconsin might have different things in its offensive playbook to use in anticipation of an early large lead on the Hilltoppers. However, White made it clear that focusing on this game and winning this game are first and foremost.
“I’m not even entertaining any thoughts of playing anybody other than our best players,” White said.