Tops brace for hard-charging Bulls in opener

Published 4:10 pm Friday, September 1, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky fielded one of the nation’s most productive offenses in 2022, a top-10 group that averaged nearly 500 yards in combined passing and rushing.

In Saturday’s season opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium, the Hilltoppers will face the architect of an even more dangerous offense when South Florida first-year head coach Alex Golesh steps on the opposing sideline.

The Tops averaged 497.3 yards per game last season, which ranked seventh in the nation. Golesh, as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, helped the Vols average an FBS-high 525.5 yards in total offense in 2022.

Now Golesh is coaching the Bulls, who are coming off a dreadful 1-11 season that included an 0-8 mark in AAC play.

How much of that Tennessee offense will translate to South Florida’s restocked roster featuring more than 40 transfers is anybody’s guess — and WKU’s coaching staff is guessing the Bulls are going to be a handful.

“They’re a great tempo team,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “They’ve got high-octane players on the outside and quarterbacks that are athletic guys that can throw and run. So there’s a lot to defend. And they can defend sideline to sideline. If you think we go fast, they go really, really fast. They game plan you, so hopefully you have a mental breakdown and you bust an assignment and you give up a big play. That’s kind of how they build offensively. But at the same time, they do a great job of maintaining long drives.”

Neither team released traditional depth charts heading into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Houchens-Smith Stadium. WKU simply released a positional lineup listed alphabetically, while South Florida’s depth chart mostly offered multiple options for each starter.

“I think they’re a lot like us, though, in the sense that they’ve got a bunch of new bodies everywhere – specifically on the defensive side of the ball,” Golesh said during a news conference last week. “So a little bit of a guessing game, probably similar to what they are with us as well.”

The Bulls will likely be led by quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who won USF’s starting job last year but was sidelined with a shoulder injury after seven games. Before transferring to USF, Bohanon had a successful run at Baylor that included a full-time starting role in 2021 as the Bears went 12-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. Redshirt freshman Byrum Brown, who started the final two games for South Florida last year, is another viable option at quarterback.

The Bulls don’t have to do any guessing about WKU’s quarterback situation. Austin Reed won the starting job as a first-year transfer from Division II West Florida and finished the season as the nation’s leading passing with 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns while tossing only 11 interceptions.

“Everything last year was just so new,” Reed said. “My first start last year was against my only second-ever Division I opponent. My first-ever FBS game was Game 2, so you know having a whole season under my belt … it’s just being familiar with this environment and this level of college football. With that comes being familiar with the preparation it takes and what it’s going to take for us to go win in Week 1.”

Having Reed and wide receiver Malachi Corley — who led the nation in yards after the catch last season — among a solid group of playmakers back was part of the attraction to the job for WKU first-year offensive coordinator Drew Hollingshead.

Reed has a chance to even surpass last season’s output in Hollingshead’s estimation.

“You saw what he did last year, coming in the spring and how fast he picked it up to become the starter and then obviously the year that he had,” Hollingshead said. “I’ve said this before, I think the most important thing for him was to have another year under his belt within our offense, know the ins and outs, the tricks of the trade to get in and out of plays versus different looks that aren’t necessarily the best. Where I’ve been really proud of him over the course of spring ball and fall camp is he’s taken that next step.”

WKU is 62-36-6 all-time in season openers and have won three of seven previous matchups against South Florida. The last of those came in 2015, when the Hilltoppers capped their season with a 45-35 win against the Bulls in the Miami Beach Bowl.

Helton is 2-2 in season openers at WKU, having won the last two against Austin Peay last season and UT Martin in 2021.

“First games are always tough, they’re always tough,” Helton said. “I’m one of those (people) who you hope for the best, but you assume the worst. And when the worst happens, you better have some quick answers real fast. That’s what we’ve got to make sure of – whatever the situations are, whatever problems arise in that first game that we have some answers really fast for them.”

With a forecast calling for plenty of sun and low-90 degree weather at kickoff, the Tops are ready to get the season going at home.

“I’m just ready, man,” said WKU linebacker JaQues Evans, the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of butterflies right now. I’m ready to get out there and just play the first game. We get tired of beating up on each other and everything, so just to hit up on somebody else is going to be fun.”