0-for-Alabama: Tops fall on last-second field goal at Jax State

Published 4:09 pm Wednesday, October 18, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – Western Kentucky’s second-half offensive struggles crept up again and this time the defense couldn’t salvage the night, as host Jacksonville State hit a last-second field goal to deal the Hilltoppers a 20-17 loss on Tuesday night.

WKU (4-3 overall, 2-1 Conference USA) got off to a promising start with 17 first-half points, but just like in the team’s previous outing against Louisiana Tech, the offense seemed to lose all momentum in the second half. The Hilltopper defense preserved a 35-28 road win against LA Tech – which outscored the Tops 21-0 in the second half – by getting enough second-half stops and coming up with a lead-preserving turnover late.

The Hilltopper defense nearly did it again. As WKU sputtered on offense, the Tops stubbornly denied the Gamecocks for five straight possessions to open the second half – forcing a pair of punts and three turnovers, one on an interception and twice on downs.

Jax State (6-2, 4-1) finally broke through with just 4:40 left in the game when running back Anwar Lewis slipped free for a 26-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 17-all.

WKU still had ample time to get something going on its ensuing possession, but couldn’t – quarterback Austin Reed kept the driving going with a 10-yard completion to K.D. Hutchinson on third-and-10, but Reed had to throw the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack on another third-down play and the Tops had to punt.

Jax State quarterback Zion Webb led an efficient final drive that started at the JSU 32, stopping the clock on the ninth play with a kneel-down at the WKU 21. The Gamecocks then let the game clock run down to four seconds before taking a time out to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. JSU kicker Alen Karajic took it from there, connecting on a 41-yard field goal as time expired to finish off the Tops and deal them their second loss in Alabama this season – WKU dropped a 27-24 decision to nonconference foe Troy on Sept. 23 in Troy, Ala.

“Tough loss. I thought our kids battled hard, took it all the way down to the end,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “Defense did all they could do and gave us an opportunity to try to keep coming back. We moved the ball offensively, but we couldn’t find the end zone – that’s pretty obvious.

“We’ve got to rebound. We’ve got a big game coming up against Liberty at home and we’ve got to go get that conference win.”

Next Tuesday’s home matchup against Liberty takes on even greater importance for WKU, the CUSA preseason favorite in the coaches’ poll. Liberty was generally regarded as the Tops’ main challenger this season, and now the unbeaten Flames hold clear advantage in the race for the league championship with a 5-0 record in CUSA play. Should WKU win the matchup at Houchens-Smith Stadium and then win out in conference play, the Tops could still host the CUSA championship game.

Much would need to go right for that to happen, and another uneven showing by the offense Tuesday against Jax State did little to inspire confidence.

The Hilltoppers did fine in the first half, posting 17 points off 270 yards of total offense – with four explosive plays of 20 yards or more boosting number.

The second half was a much different story, as WKU managed just 69 yards and four first downs – and no points, obviously.

“We came out man, nothing was working for us,” said WKU redshirt sophomore tight end River Helms, a rare bright spot on Tuesday night with three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown. “We’ve just got to come together. The second half’s been a problem for us all season. We’ve got to get better at that, for sure – just come together as a whole team, making plays all around.”

WKU opened the scoring on its second drive of the night, with Reed sparking the team with a 26-yard run before capping the eight-play, 53-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Dalvin Smith.

Lucas Carneiro’s 28-yard field goal put the Tops up 10-0 in the first quarter, but Webb was just getting started for the Gamecocks. The redshirt senior quarterback, who ran for a game-high 146 yards and passed for 218 more, picked up a 10-yard touchdown run to get his team to within 10-7 early in the second.

Reed (24 of 48 passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns) connected with Helms on a 3-yard touchdown pass – a happy ending to a strange drive that saw Reed throw an interception to JSU’s Fred Perry, who lost the ball when WKU offensive lineman Wesley Horton forced a fumble and fellow lineman Marshall Jackson came up with the recovery at the WKU 40.

Karajic’s 23-yard field goal got Jax State back within 17-10 with 5:35 left in the second quarter, and that score held until halftime.

The Gamecocks, who had 223 yards of total offense in the first half, wrestled the momentum away in the second to finish with a decisive 484-339 advantage in total offense, including 262 rushing yards.

WKU’s defense held firm for most of the second half, but eventually gave way.

“It’s a tough L, so you always think like what you could’ve done right,” WKU redshirt junior linebacker Kylan Guidry said. “I just feel like we could’ve cleaned up a couple things.”

WKU missed on a few big-play attempts with dropped passes, with numerous drops helping stall drives – the most prominent coming late in the third quarter, when Moussa Barry juggled Reed’s pass into the end zone before a Jax State defender knocked away a sure touchdown.

“We had an opportunity on a third-and-long on a long bomb and we drop it – if we catch that ball, we’re probably off and running,” Helton said. “But there’s a lot of other things. It’s not just that one play. We’ve got to keep analyzing that, what the issues are and try to get them fixed.”

WKU is back in action Tuesday at home against Liberty. Game time is 6:30 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium.