Few teams were more fun to watch or wager on than the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers last season. Zach Kittley and Bailey Zappe, their potent offensive coordinator and quarterback combination, put the Hilltoppers in the national spotlight with Zappe's record-breaking 62-touchdown season. Bettors who did their homework early in the year on the Houston Baptist transfers benefited significantly as the market was slow to catch up on sides and totals. Western Kentucky finished 10-4 ATS and to the over in 2021.
National attention is a double-edged sword, especially for a small conference school. The Hilltoppers looked much different heading into this year. Zappe inevitably moved on to the NFL, while Kittley took his dream job in his hometown of Lubbock to run the offense for the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Losing the most integral pieces of the most explosive offense in the country made Western Kentucky one of the biggest question marks in college football. They are off to a 2-0 start with victories over Austin Peay and Hawaii, but this week we will finally get some answers. Western Kentucky travels to Indiana as a 6.5-point underdog this Saturday afternoon, and here is why I think the Hilltoppers are a solid play to cover the spread against the Hoosiers.
Indiana got the best of Western Kentucky last year in a very competitive 33-31 win. So much has changed from last year's rosters, but an important takeaway is that the Hilltoppers were able to match up physically. Indiana rushed for only 134 yards on 39 carries (3.4 ypc). The Hilltoppers have four key players in their front seven back this season, including leading tackler Jaden Hunter. Indiana's rushing attack has had two extreme performances so far this year. First, the Hoosiers struggled mightily against the only FBS defense they faced, earning only 32 total yards on 26 carries. Then, last week, they battered Idaho for 239 yards in a 35-22 win. If Western Kentucky can force Indiana to turn to QB Connor Bazelak to make plays, it allows the Hilltoppers to do what they have done best: force turnovers.
WKU's defense has 10 takeaways through its first two games, which ranks second among all FBS teams. The Hilltoppers' seven interceptions are tied with Nevada for the most in the country, and their +3.5 turnover margin per game average trails only the USC Trojans. We don't want to overstate the quality of opponents (Austin Peay and Hawaii), but I like that this is a veteran defense playing aggressively with confidence. With Bazelak under center, the Hoosiers offense has turned the ball over twice in both games this season. If Western Kentucky can win the turnover margin, these teams are competitive enough to where it will be the difference in the game.
I see this as a lower-scoring game played in the 20's where a handful of big plays swing the momentum. I am not confident either team has the firepower to climb out of a multi-score deficit. However, Western Kentucky has generated nine explosive pass-plays over 20+ yards, including touchdowns of 47 and 48 yards. Those deep shots won't come as easy against Indiana's pass rush, but QB Austin Reed does have the mobility to make plays off-platform. There are enough scenarios where the Hilltoppers' defense slows down the Hoosiers enough to extend a lead and forces Indiana out of their ideal game script. The +6.5 points give too much credit to Indiana, who fell behind last week against Idaho and pulled off an improbable game-winning drive against Illinois. I bet Western Kentucky at +6.5 with a smaller stake on the money line at +200.