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By LARRY VAUGHT
From what Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart has seen of Kentucky, he’s convinced “their offense is a lot better” than last year and that “people are not giving Joker (Phillips)” enough credit for the team he’s put together this year.
“I think they are a good football team,” said Taggart.
The biggest reason is UK sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith.
“He understands the offense. I think the no-huddle has really helped them. He is efficient with the ball. He is giving it to guys where they can run after the catch,” Taggart said. “That is really helping him. He is really running their offense efficiently and what they are asking him to do without making many mistakes.”
Still, Western Kentucky (1-1) does not come into Saturday night’s game at UK feeling intimidate. The Cats won only 14-3 in Nashville last year and Western is coming off only a 35-0 loss at No. 1 Alabama, a game where it had four turnovers.
The Hilltoppers have not been able to beat UK in three previous meeting but Taggart sidestepped a question about whether this would be Western’s best chance to beat the Wildcats.
“I feel like that every time we go out, that this is our best chance. I think we are getting better when we are playing these (BCS) opponents. I think we get better every time we go out and play them,” Taggart said. “I think we are good enough to go out and win. I thought we were good enough last year. We just have to go out and take care of business and execute. If we don’t do that, it doesn’t matter. They are still in the SEC. It is an SEC opponent.”
However, the Western coach wouldn’t deny that a win would be huge for his program.
“It would make a statement that we have a really good football team and kind of reiterate what we are saying. But we have to go out and do it,” Taggart said. “We haven’t beaten UK since I’ve been here and that is something I know we would all like. We are going to prepare like we did last week and try to go out and play our best football game. Last week we didn’t do that.”
The Hilltoppers certainly have impressed Kentucky coach Joker Phillips.
“The quarterback (Kawaun) Jakes right now is completing over 70 percent of his passes, which gives them another dimension in their offense. They already are a physical downhill running football team, and now they’re a team that can throw the football also. So another dimension that you have to be able to defend,” Phillips said. “They get a lot of production from their tailback position. Their tailbacks are averaging over five yards a carry.”
Jakes is 38-for-54 passing for 474 yards. In last year’s loss to Kentucky, he was 9-for-27 passing for only 93 yards and threw four interceptions. Leon Allen leads the rushing attack with 119 yards on 24 carries.
Another player who has impressed Phillips is versatile junior Antonio Andrews, a Ft. Campbell product. He’s averaging 18.2 yards per punt return and 23 yards per kickoff return. He also has two catches and has run the football.
“Everybody was saying that he’s an athlete but he wanted to be a quarterback. The guy is returning punts for them. He’s playing tailback, doing an outstanding job,” the UK coach said. “He was a state champion quarterback at Fort Campbell, and a kid that I watched grow up in high school from recruiting down there. He’s doing a really good job for them.”
Phillips calls Jack Doyle “one of the top tight ends in the country.” He had seven catches for 45 yards at Alabama and has 12 catches for 121 yards. He has 121 career receptions and has at least one catch in 14 straight games.
“Big, physical guy that understands how to set in windows, and he catches the ball and gets upfield. Does a really good job,” Phillips said.
Western’s defense had eight tackles for loss by six different players at Alabama, including six quarterback sacks.
“They’re really talented. Those guys win a lot of one‑on‑one battles, they did. The defensive end (Quanterus Smith) won his battles, and the linebacker (Andrew Jackson) won a few battles,” Phillips said. “Those guys do a really good job of putting pressure on the quarterback and making it uncomfortable for them. The coverage teams helped them also. They did good things in the back end also.
“Defensively, I think their defense and offense also benefit from playing against each other. Their offense is a real physical team, a power running offense, and to have to defend that daily, you have to be physical on defense, and the defense ranks 12th in the country.”
Jackson had 17 tackles for loss last year and already has four this season. He had 1.5 tackles for loss at Alabama and has a tackle for loss in 13 of his 14 career starts.
Taggart doesn’t think six sacks at No. 1 Alabama was an unreasonable feat for his defense, which is giving up just 241 yards per game.
“I think we can do that each week when we go out no matter who it is when we play our type of ball. Q (Quanterus) Smith is one of the best defensive ends in the country. I think we saw one of the better defensive ends against one of the best offensive linemen in the country. Q Smith got the best of him that day,” Taggart said. “Our strength coach has done a great job. They are all bigger, stronger, faster now.
“It’s big time football around here and we have some mighty men, too. We have guys that can compete. We are an older football team. That makes a difference. Guys have played a lot of football around here and the more repetition you get, the better you get.”