OPPORTUNITY WAITS/Western Kentucky, a 27.5-point underdog, anxious to scrap with sixth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday


They’re off to the first 2-0 start since the arrival of the new millennium more than 20 years ago.

They’ve got a proven quarterback, putting up big numbers in the first two weeks of September, and a defense that has produced touchdowns of its own in the first weeks of the season.

They’ve got basically nothing to lose, and they’re a 27.5-point underdog.

Western Kentucky’s football team will try to defy the odds on Saturday afternoon, when the Hilltoppers (2-0) square off with sixth-ranked Ohio State (2-0) in 103,000-seat Ohio Stadium. WKU has simulated excessive crowd noise over the PA system at Houchens-Smith Stadium this week, but the real thing — “The Horseshoe” — figures to be a more daunting challenge.

Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. CDT on Saturday. The game will be televised by Fox Sports.

“We enjoy these types of games,” said WKU coach Tyson Helton, in his fifth season with the Tops. “We want to be a part of the national conversation. It’s a great opportunity for our football team.”

Western Kentucky had Indiana on the ropes last year in Bloomington, Indiana, but the Hoosiers rallied late to knock off the Hilltoppers, 33-30, in overtime. They opened the 2023 season with a late surge in a 41-27 victory over South Florida, before returning to Houchens-Smith Stadium to cruise past FCS opponent Houston Christian, 52-22.

Austin Reed, in his second and final year as the Hilltoppers’ starting quarterback, completed 27 of 33 passes for 253 yards and four touchdowns against Houston Christian. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound WKU quarterback has had good protection in the Tops’ games against South Florida and HCU, but the Buckeyes’ defense is a formidable force.

“The crowd noise is going to be a big factor, but it’s nothing new for us,” Reed said. “It’s an awesome opportunity.”

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for WKU senior wide receiver Blue Smith, who began his college career at Ohio State after playing high school ball in Huber Heights, Ohio. Smith left OSU after his freshman year, coinciding with former coach Urban Meyer’s departure, and transferred to the University of Cincinnati.

With injuries to first-team receivers Malachi Corley (a chest bruise on Opening Day against South Florida) and Dalvin Smith (an ankle injury against Houston Christian), the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Smith has had a chance to shine in the early going for the Hilltoppers. Smith has eight receptions in the Hilltoppers’ first two games and had a 20-yard touchdown catch against Houston Christian.

“It’s full circle, man,” Smith said. “The game is real personal for me. I really didn’t know what I was going to do, when I left Cincinnati. Austin (Reed) had a lot to do with me coming here … It’s a dream, for every Ohio kid, to play at Ohio State.”

Reed does give the Hilltoppers a sense of confidence. He has a quick release and excels at reading defense, giving Reed a chance to follow former WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe into the NFL ranks.

Defensively, the Hilltoppers led FBS squads with six defensive touchdowns last season, and they’ve already scored two in the first two weeks of the season. JaQues Evans returned a South Florida fumble 21 yards for a touchdown just before halftime on Opening Day, and WKU defensive back Upton Stout covered the width of the field after a spectacular interception, scoring on a 59-yard return against Houston Christian.

“I expect a dogfight. I feel like it’ll be a good game,” Evans said. “When we saw our schedule come out, this was one of the games that jumped out at us.”

WKU coach Tyson Helton said he’s coached at Ohio State several times as an assistant coach, and he’s looking forward to see how the Hilltoppers measure up against the bigger, stronger Buckeyes.

“We love being on this stage,” Helton said. “They’ve got a big, physical offensive line. They’re going to take their shots … But I can’t think of a better place to play.

“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. It’s what college football is all about.”

Western is 0-10 against the Big Ten, all-time, including losses to Indiana in each of the last two seasons. The Hilltoppers could open some eyes by bucking that trend, given the odds against them.

“When you’ve got a good quarterback, you always have a chance,” WKU running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter said. “Our defense is playing lights out. We saw it every day, as an offense, in camp. We know we’ve got to match their intensity. We’re looking forward to it.”