Published 4:06 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky’s defense turned in its best performance of the season and the offense did enough to reward that effort as the Hilltoppers claimed a 31-10 win against Conference USA rival Middle Tennessee on Thursday night at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

WKU (3-2 overall, 1-0 CUSA) limited the Blue Raiders to just a touchdown and a field goal while forcing three turnovers – one of which provided a short field to set up a Hilltopper touchdown.

“Very proud of our defense – two weeks in a row they have responded extremely well, making critical stops, making turnovers,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “Offensively, we did good enough to go win the game. But really our defense was fantastic tonight getting the turnovers and stops that we needed.”

Up 23-3 at halftime, the Tops finally showed cracks on defense as MTSU (1-4, 0-1) put together a 15-play, 75-yard drive finished off by a Frank Peasant 16-yard touchdown run to open the second half.

After WKU’s ensuing drive sputtered into a punt, the Blue Raiders surged right back down the field. Starting at its own 9-yard line, MTSU pushed all the way to the WKU 3. But facing a fourth-and-goal, Blue Raiders quarterback Nicholas Vattiato’s plunge for the goal line was stopped cold by WKU’s Takulve Williams and Kylan Guidry for a 1-yard loss.

The Tops kept it up on the next series, shutting down another MTSU possession when defensive lineman Hosea Wheeler swatted Vattiato’s pass attempt and linebacker Bryson Williams snared the redirected ball with one arm for an interception at the Blue Raiders’ 49.

“It took the whole arm to get that one,” said Williams, who also had a fumble recovery after Anthony Brackenridge forced it in the second quarter.

WKU squandered the ensuing possession when Austin Reed’s pass was intercepted by Tra Fluellen and returned 25 yards to the MTSU 35 on the third play of the drive, putting the Tops back on the field to try to hold.

They did, forcing a fourth-down incompletion to regain possession at the WKU 43 with 11:13 left in the game. That’s when the Tops’ offense got rolling again, as Reed kept the drive alive by running for a first down on fourth-and-1, then hitting Easton Messer for a 10-yard completion on third-and-8 before Elijah Young sprang loose on another third-down situation for a 14-yard touchdown run that featured the junior running back vaulting a defender into the end zone.

“Elijah made a great run,” Helton said. “Austin made a nice run check – we actually had a run going to the right and he saw the defense was overloaded, checked to the left and then Elijah made a great run. And then L.T. Sanders (game-high 83 rushing yards) got in there for us and really got the drive going for us, had a couple huge runs.”

Reed’s two-point conversion pass to Dalvin Smith set the final score with 5:52 to play, but Takulve Williams (game-high 12 tackles) locked it down on MTSU’s final position with an interception at the WKU 2.

“What I was proud about with our offense. I thought they battled all night, they got up, they made critical plays when they needed to make those plays – that was great to see,” Helton said. “And then in the fourth quarter, that last drive where we scored the last touchdown – talk about run to win in the fourth quarter. We were finally able to get the run game going and the offensive line did a great job, and we were able to run the clock out and get that final score.”

The Hilltoppers opened the scoring in the first quarter, when Reed dumped a screen pass on a blitz to running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter, who covered most of the 18 yards after the catch for a touchdown reception to put WKU up 7-0 with 7:34 left in the first.

Lucas Carneiro’s 45-yard field goal increased the lead to 10-0 later in the quarter.

MTSU got on the board with Zeke Rankin’s 23-yard field goal in the second quarter, but the Tops answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive finished off with a Reed 8-yard touchdown pass to Easton Messer on a pinpoint throw for a fingertip catch in the back corner of the end zone.

Washington’s fumble recovery later in the second set the Tops up at the MTSU 30, and after Jimmy Holiday’s 20-yard catch was ruled just short of the end one after initially being called a touchdown, it was Reed who finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to put the Tops up 23-3.

It was a dominant first-half performance on both sides of the ball, with WKU outgaining the Blue Raiders 260-124 in total offense. By the game’s end, the Tops held a 444-375 advantage in total offense.

Reed finished the night 30 of 52 passing for 297 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

“Good, not great – I think we could’ve played a little better,” Reed said. “I thought we did a good job in the first half. Second half was a little weird – that new clock rule finally came into effect in that second half. We had one possession in the third quarter, and I think we had two or three in the fourth.

“… When I say we played good not great, I probably put that on myself more than the rest of the group. I thought the offensive line did a really good job. I don’t know if we gave up any sacks. I though the receivers did a really good job, the running backs did a really good job. Personally, probably could’ve played better but proud of the group.”

Malachi Corley finished with eight catches for 81 yards to lead the Tops.

The Hilltoppers won their fifth straight against the Blue Raiders in the long-running “100 Miles of Hate” rivalry, and now hold 37-35-1 edge in the series.

WKU is back on the road next Thursday to face CUSA foe Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. Game time is 7 p.m. with ESPNU scheduled to broadcast.