Bringing the heat: Tops’ defense puts on pressure, reaps benefits in opener

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky’s defense rated among the most disruptive in the nation last season.

The Tops led FBS-level college football with 37 takeaways and a staggering six touchdowns scored by the defense, providing WKU’s offense a critical boost with regularity under defensive coordinator Tyson Summers.

Much of the defensive staff along with a sizable number of players had to be replaced from that productive crew, but Saturday’s performance in a 41-24 season-opening win over South Florida confirmed that Summers’ defense is just as opportunistic as ever.

WKU (1-0) badgered Bulls starting quarterback Byrum Brown with plenty of pressure, tallying five sacks along with a pair of interceptions and a crushing fumble recovery for a touchdown. With one game in, the Tops already have three takeaways and a defensive touchdown.

It wasn’t a great start for the Tops, who allowed a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game. That march proved to be the exception rather than the rule, as the Bulls had trouble replicating that success for much of the day despite fielding a dangerous run game operating on at a frenetic tempo designed to wear out the opposing defense.

The Tops forced six three-and-out possessions against South Florida, and combined with those three turnovers did much to blunt the Bulls’ offense.

“I’m really excited about how hard we played,” Summers said. “At least from the film, I think there were 104 plays that we had to grade. So we played a lot of snaps and I told our staff and I told our defensive guys (Sunday), whether it’s play 3, play 33 or play 93 or play 103, I thought we played extremely, extremely hard. I thought we played very physical and very competitive and I thought we finished really strongly.”

The Tops bounced back from that opening-drive touchdown to stop the Bulls with the first of those turnovers when Desmyn Baker picked intercepted Brown’s pass and gave the Tops’ offense the ball at their own 47-yard line. Five plays later, WKU scored the tying touchdown on a Markese Stepp 2-yard run.

For Summers, Baker’s interception represented a 14-point swing – stopping the Bulls’ momentum on another promising drive and giving the ball back to WKU’s offense in good field position for a drive of its own.

“Coach Summers does a great job and did exactly what I thought they would,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “They got after the quarterback, they hit him a ton, they got the turnovers when they needed them. Huge play down there in the red zone right there late in the fourth, they’re driving to go tie it up and Aaron Key comes away with a huge interception. A lot of that is our guys playing the scheme that coach Summers wants to play. We’re getting pressure on the quarterback. And the quarterback, you know he gets flustered and throws it to us. That’s how we’re built defensively.”

Key’s interception came at a crucial time for the Tops as South Florida (0-1) looked poised to tie the game in the third quarter. Key’s pick in the end zone spoiled an 87-yard drive – another seven-point swing, in Summers’ reckoning.

The Tops built their lead to 10 with a field goal in the fourth, then Evans delivered the finishing blow when he beat his man around the edge, slammed into Brown in the pocket, ripped the ball out of his hands and carried it into the end zone for a 27-yard fumble return TD with just 2:51 to play.

That play capped an impressive day for Evans, the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. He finished with that forced fumble and fumble recovery for a TD along with a sack and tied for the game high with seven tackles to earn CUSA Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“It’s a four-quarter game,” Evans said. “You make adjustments. You know there’s going to be highs and lows in the game, so you’ve just got to stick with your game plan, continue to trust your brothers and keep playing.”

There is still room for improvement. The Bulls generated 540 yards of total offense, including 374 rushing yards. That number is too high, but the Tops limited the damage by allowing just seven points over the final 43 minutes Saturday.

“We’ve got to continue to get better in the run defense piece of it,” Helton said. “Again, I’m going to give South Florida a lot of credit – big, physical offensive line, tempo offense. They’re a shot football team, so at times we had lighter boxes defensively so they were able to run it easier. I did think we rallied well and tackled and got it down. I say all the time, I am fine with explosive plays. If the series ends with a field goal and not a touchdown, more often than not because of our offense we’re going to be fine – we’re going to outscore them.”

Summers said the Tops went almost three-deep on defense in Saturday’s opener, an effective move to combat fatigue in the high heat and the Bulls’ fast-paced attack. It worked, as WKU looked fresher in the second half and that translated into those game-changing defensive plays.

“He does a great job of matching the defense with how we play offense,” Helton said of Summers. “He’s trying to get it back to the offense as quickly as possible, and by doing that he’s going to bring a lot of pressure. He’s going to roll the dice, hit the quarterback, keep people guessing, try to get a lot of three-and-outs. At times though, they’re going to make their plays. You’re going to see explosive plays, explosive runs, explosive passes down the field. Our guys do a great job usually of rallying and making them try to kick field goals or they create another turnover and get the ball back to the offense.”

WKU is back in action Saturday, hosting Houston Christian in a 6 p.m. matchup at Houchens-Smith Stadium.