Reed-to-Corley combo boosts Tops over Bulldogs

Published 3:24 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

RUSTON, La. — The connection between Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed and star wide receiver Malachi Corley was as strong as ever Thursday night against Louisiana Tech.

The Tops’ dynamic passing-game combo, who rose to prominence last year — Reed as the nation’s leading passer, Corley as the nation’s top producer of yards after the catch — gave the Bulldogs absolute fits at Joe Aillet Stadium, hooking up for three first-half touchdown pass plays and in WKU’s 35-28 win.

The Hilltoppers needed every one of those scores plus two more, and still required a determined stand late and one final turnover to kill a last-chance drive by the Bulldogs.

With WKU still holding a seven-point lead after getting outscored 21-0 in the second half, Louisiana Tech forced yet another Hilltopper punt in the second half — one of five in the final two quarters, not to mention a turnover on downs. The Bulldogs got the ball back at their own 38-yard line with 1:59 to play, but on second down WKU cornerback Anthony Johnson Jr. picked off Jack Turner’s pass to finally put an end to the comeback bid.

Johnson, who missed last week’s home win against Middle Tennessee, was filling in for injured starting cornerback Upton Stout and tallied seven tackles.

“I felt like it was a great call in that moment,” Johnson said. “We were ready for them to go on an out-breaking route. Coach just put us in a great scheme so we could go make a play.”

WKU made most of the plays in the first two quarters on both sides of the ball.

Louisiana Tech (3-4, 2-1) opened the game with a quick score as running back Tyre Shelton popped free for a 25-yard touchdown run.

The Tops answered in two plays, with Reed hitting Corley for a short completion that the junior wideout turned into a 70-yard touchdown reception with his trademark tackle-breaking run after the catch.

“It was good to see the YAC king come back, man, because that was kind of what he did today,” Reed said of Corley. “A lot of catches and runs down the field, making me look good.”

The Tops got another big play midway through the first as running back Markese Stepp broke free for a 56-yard touchdown run that gave his team a 14-7 lead.

WKU’s defense set up the Tops with yet another pivotal forced turnover. Coming into Thursday’s game, defensive coordinator Tyson Summers’ unit had a nation-leading 14 takeaways — they added two more against the Bulldogs.

Virgil Marshall’s 40-yard interception return gave the WKU offense the ball at the LA Tech 16, and running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter kept the Tops’ perfect red zone streak intact with a 1-yard TD run with 2:23 left in the first.

Reed (297 passing yards) and Corley hooked up again on a 48-yard touchdown pass play that pushed the Tops’ lead to 28-7 early in the second quarter, then struck one more time on a 29-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left in the first half to stake the Tops to a 35-7 halftime lead.

Corley finished the night with eight catches for a career-high 207 yards and three touchdowns. Corley moved into sole possession of second place on WKU’s career receptions list with 217 catches. His three touchdown receptions moved him into third place all-time in WKU history with 23 in his career.

“When I got the first touch of the game and I went for 70, I knew it was going to be a big game for myself,” Corley said. “Before the game, I had a lot of preparation. I feel like I was overly prepared for the game, so I knew good things were going to happen for me. The ball just kept finding me during that first half and I just kept making plays.”

WKU outgained Louisiana Tech 426-397 in total offense, but the Bulldogs cut into that margin over the final two quarters.

Turner’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Maxwell with 8:41 left barely raised an eyebrow, but as the Tops kept sputtering in the second half the Bulldogs kept coming.

“I could use some coach line, but I think what happens to you is it’s not that you’re conservative — you’re trying to manage the game,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “And in the first half, you put the pedal to the metal and you’re extreme and those things are working for you. And you get such a big lead … we dropped two third-down passes in critical back-to-back series (in the second half). If we move the chains there, who knows what happens. We had two drops in the third quarter that I thought were two big drops.”

Turner’s 1-yard touchdown run pulled his team to within 14 with 3:13 left in the third, then Shelton’s 1-yard TD run got Louisiana Tech to within a score with 3:09 still left in the game.

WKU had a chance to at least burn off some of that game clock on the ensuing possession, but again couldn’t muster a first down.

The Bulldogs had a chance, but Johnson’s pick sealed the Hilltoppers’ first road victory of the season.

“Very proud of our football team,” Helton said. “If you want to make a run at a conference championship, you’ve got to go on the road and win tough (games). That’s what we did tonight.”

WKU will have more than a week off before returning on the road to face CUSA newcomer Jacksonville State on Tuesday, Oct. 17 in Jacksonville, Ala.