College football: Hilltoppers won’t reach summit at Ohio State

There’s no doubt about it. If Western Kentucky would come into Ohio Stadium on Saturday and upset the Buckeyes it would be the biggest win in the history of the Hilltoppers’ football program.

But Western Kentucky is no stranger to playing big-time opponents. It has played a team from a Power 5 conference almost every year since 2001, which was eight years before it became a full-fledged FBS school.

The Hilltoppers have played four Big Ten schools since 2001 — Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

They have played Kentucky four times since 2001, Alabama three times, LSU twice, Auburn twice and Tennessee twice. They played Florida in 2007, one year after the Gators beat Ohio State in the BCS national championship game.

Playing Power 5 opponents is one thing and beating them is something else, though. Western Kentucky has played 23 games against Power 5 conference teams since 2001 and has a 2-21 record in those games, with the wins coming in back-to-back seasons against Kentucky in 2012 and 2013.

The point of that history lesson is to say Western Kentucky probably is more of a threat to No. 6 Ohio State (2-0) than Youngstown State and more of a threat than Indiana but not as dangerous as an elite non-league opponent.

The Hilltoppers (2-0) will certainly take a different approach to the game than Indiana and Youngstown State did.

The Hoosiers and Penguins took very few chances on offense and seemed intent on taking as much time off the play clock as possible before every snap to try to keep the ball out of the hands of OSU’s offense.

Western Kentucky is going to put the football in the air all day. At least that would seem to be what a team with a quarterback who threw for 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns last season would do.

WKU quarterback Austin Reed did that last season and his favorite target, Malachi Corley, is back after catching 101 passes for 1,295 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

Corley hasn’t played since suffering a rib injury in a 41-24 win over South Florida in the Hilltoppers’ season opener. But 13 WKU players have caught passes this season, including former Ohio State receiver L’Christian “Blue” Smith.

Five things to look for in the game:

• Kyle McCord looked more poised, to use Ryan Day’s description, in last week’s 35-7 win over Youngstown State. Now that he’s officially Ohio State’s starting quarterback will he take another step toward becoming the quarterback OSU needs to win a Big Ten championship and more?

• How well will Ohio State’s defensive backs, who have looked much improved in the first two games, contend with the first credible passing attack they have seen this season?

Western Kentucky will move the ball in the air but the Buckeyes need to keep those completions from turning into touchdowns.

•Will the defensive line put heavy pressure on the quarterback for the first time this season? Specifically, will one of OSU’s defensive ends get a sack?

Starting defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, who are expected to have monster seasons, have not had a sack in the first two games of the season. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles attributes that low number to the fact Youngstown State and Indiana did not pass a lot.

Playing against a quarterback who averages 41 passes a game could give Tuimoloau, Sawyer and the rest of Ohio State’s defensive linemen a better chance to get some sacks. But Western Kentucky has not given up a sack in its first two games.

• Will Ohio State’s offensive line play with more consistency, which is a nice way of saying will it play better?

Third down plays, especially third-and-short situations, have been a problem for the offensive line.

Playing against a Western Kentucky defensive line which is short on experience and has allowed an average of 5.6 yards per running play could give the line a chance to show improvement.

• What will Ryan Day do if Ohio State wins the coin toss?

Day does not like the new rule that the clock stops after first downs only in the last two minutes of each half because he thinks it reduces the number of offensive plays Ohio State can run.

So last week when OSU won the toss, he went away from his usual decision of deferring to the second half and said he wanted to receive the opening kickoff. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown on their third play of the game.

The prediction: Ohio State 42, Western Kentucky 21