Feb. '23 Blitz of the Month: The 'Diner' Path
Western Kentucky's Mug Diner Tampa Sim
The Hilltoppers are not known for their defensive prowess, but they can produce a decent unit occasionally. 2022 was that year. Though not ranked in the top 25 in overall efficiency (51st in FEI), the ‘22 defensive unit did come in second behind Illinois's elite unit in turnovers gained. In addition, the ‘Tops finished 16th in DTO, which rates “the percentage of opponent offensive drives that end with an interception or fumble” (BCF Toys).
Before this season, Defensive coordinator Ty Summers was the Florida Defensive Analyst under former DC Todd Grantham (‘21), who ran a similar defense to the Saban tree in Gainsville. Grantham spent all of ‘22 as a defensive analyst in Tuscaloosa. Summers also has ties to the Saban system. After he was let go as the Head Coach at Georgia Southern following the ‘17 campaign, Summers spent a season as the Defensive Quality Control (DQC) at Georgia under Kirby Smart and current Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker (‘18).
Tucker brought Summers when he left for Boulder to take the HC position. Their first season at CU was unremarkable, but there was a marked improvement the following year. The Covid shortened ‘20 campaign saw the Buffs finish 4-2. That year, Colorado finished 7th in the nation in Tackles For Loss (TFLs) per game, averaging 8.2. The defense also finished 13th in 3rd Down percentage (31.8%).
Summers brought an aggressive brand with him to Bowling Green, and as the analytics show, he continued that trend in ‘22. Looking at raw data, the Hilltoppers under Summers finished 39th in EPA/play and were ranked in the top 25 against the pass (24th in EPA/pass). The main area where the defense struggled was against the run, where the unit finished in the bottom third in EPA/run (CFB Graphs).
The system at Western Kentucky is what you would expect from a Saban/Smart unit: multiple fronts, coverages, and a bottomless bag of pressures. However, one of the things that always stood out to me when watching Summers’ defenses at Colorado was their 3rd Down package. There was always something unique and problematic for the offense.
Though the ‘Tops did not make it to the C-USA Championship, the program won nine games for the third time in four years under HC Tyson Helton. Outside of their losses to Auburn (17-41) and North Texas (13-40), Western Kentucky’s other three losses were all by one score: Indiana by three in OT, Troy by seven, and the eventual CUSA Champ UTSA by three. The program has been built on offense, but the defense did its part in ‘22. The 8-5 regular season record put them in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl against an outstanding 10-win South Alabama team.
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South Alabama’s loss to Troy in late October kept the Jaguars from competing for the Sun Belt Championship. However, the matchup with the Hilltoppers in New Orleans made for one of the better Group-of-Five (G5) bowl matchups. Western Kentucky put on a show in the first half, racing to a 31-3 lead heading into halftime. According to ESPN’s win probability metric, the ‘Tops reached a 90% rate early in the 2nd Quarter and never looked back.