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Visiting Hilltoppers have UK's undivided attention

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Senior safety Mikie Benton makes a tackle in UK's 14-3 win over WKU to open the 2011 season. (Joey Wilkinson, UK Athletics) Senior safety Mikie Benton makes a tackle in UK's 14-3 win over WKU to open the 2011 season. (Joey Wilkinson, UK Athletics)
In a normal year, the final non-conference game before a two-month stretch of facing exclusively Southeastern Conference opponents would be termed a trap game for Kentucky. With opponents like Florida and South Carolina looming in the coming weeks, keeping the focus on the here and now would usually be difficult.

The Wildcats aren't having trouble with that this week.

Western Kentucky University is coming to town and the Hilltoppers are adamant in their belief that they are capable of competing and more. UK recognizes that and will have to respond.

"It's going to be a physical game, a game that they and we think, 'We can win,' " Phillips said. "When you have that type of attitude on both sides, you're in for a really good game."

When the Cats and Toppers kick off Saturday at 7 p.m. in Commonwealth Stadium, WKU will be facing its second SEC opponent in as many weeks after falling 35-0 to Alabama. Following an 0-4 start to 2011, which included a 14-3 loss to Kentucky in Nashville, WKU has won eight of its last 10 games. The only two losses have come to LSU and Alabama. WKU was similarly confident heading into that defeat at Alabama and actually ran more offensive plays than the Tide in spite of the final tally.

"They thought that last week," Phillips said. "It showed by the way they played. The score is not even close to the way those guys played. We got to get our guys prepared."

So far this season, the UK offensive line has allowed just three sacks of quarterback Maxwell Smith. WKU doubled that total against a Crimson Tide offensive line billed by most as the best in the country. Andrew Jackson, the linebacker who topped 100 tackles in 2011, had 1.5 tackles for loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala., while defensive end Quanterus Smith had three sacks.

"I would think it has (the offensive line's) attention pretty good," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "They're good pass rushers. They've got a very experienced group up front and they've got guys that have played a lot of football. It's a lot of the same names that we played two years ago up here and beat 'em pretty good when they were young. Now they've grown up and matured and it's a challenge."

UK rolled up 482 yards of offense and 63 points against WKU in that aforementioned 2010 matchup, but a season ago, was limited to just 190 in a season-opening 14-3 win. Following that narrow victory, there was talk in the WKU locker room about the Wildcats not living up to their SEC billing. The remarks grabbed headlines a year ago and again received attention in the buildup for the rematch, but not from the Cats.

"We don't get into that," Phillips said. "I respect this game way too much. There's really nothing anybody can say to get me ready to play this game. I mean, shoot, just give us an opportunity. We're only guaranteed 12 opportunities. That should be enough."

As good as WKU's defense was in the last matchup with UK, the Cats are a completely different offensive team from this time a year ago, both in terms of scheme and production, as Maxwell Smith has been running Kentucky's new no-huddle attack with remarkable efficiency. The Hilltoppers, however, are one of the few teams nationally to show improvement in the passing game comparable to UK's through two games of 2012.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes' biggest responsibility for most of his first three seasons was handing the ball to running back Bobby Rainey, but Rainey graduated and now is pursuing a professional career. In his final season, Jakes has taken a leap forward as a passer. He threw for barely 150 yards a game and more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10) in 2011, but his completion percentage has jumped by 15 to 70.4 in 2012.

When WKU drops back to pass, Jakes will more often than not be looking to either All-Sun Belt tight end Jack Doyle or one of his running backs. Doyle has 12 catches through his first two games and has led WKU in receptions nine of his last 14 games.

"I think now, with the Rainey kid gone, they want to get the ball to one of their better players a little bit more, which is the Doyle kid," Phillips said. "You're seeing them throw the ball a lot more in their offense. They're trying to get the ball to guys they think can make plays."

With Rainey gone, most carries have been split between backs Leon Allen and Antonio Andrews, who are each averaging at least five yards per carry. Make no mistake though: the offense starts with Jakes.

"The one thing is you're looking at a senior, a guy who's been in this system for (WKU head coach) Willie (Taggart) for four years," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "It's always tough to play veteran quarterbacks as we all know here. Look at our 2010: we lost a great quarterback (Mike Hartline), had to break in a new quarterback (Morgan Newton). You remember those years when you had senior quarterbacks and how well your offense has a chance to function."

The styles may be different, but with two matchups between UK and WKU in recent years, there will be familiar faces on both sides. For the Cats, they remember how a lackluster effort against the Hilltoppers set the stage for a disappointing season. A better performance this time around could be another step toward turning the page.

"There's still a lot of hype from last year," offensive lineman Zach West said. "We didn't feel like we played our best game. This week, we're going to try to go back and prove ourselves that we still can play very good football against this team."

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