BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – The Hilltoppers are going bowling.
The WKU Football offense scored a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the defense forced turnovers on Sam Houston’s final three possessions, and the Hilltoppers held on for a 28-23 victory over the Bearkats on Saturday during senior day at Houchens-Smith Stadium to become eligible for a bowl game for the fifth time in five seasons under head coach Tyson Helton.
“Great win tonight,” Helton said. “It’s one of those wins that there was so much adversity in the night and our team just kept battling. I cannot say enough about our defense. For them to go out there and get the turnovers, get the stops – we had five total turnovers on offense tonight, and you’re not supposed to win the game – and it says everything about our defense.
“It was a great team win. We made some really good plays offensively, some explosive plays, and that’s probably what helped win the game. We had multiple explosive plays, which was good to see offensively. That’s a good football team in Sam Houston, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in our conference. Every game has come down to the end in conference for them other than, I think, New Mexico State, and it was the same tonight. It was the last play of the game. We expected nothing less.”
WKU (6-5 overall, 4-3 Conference USA) entered the fourth quarter trailing Sam Houston (2-9, 1-6) 23-21, but got a quick 75-yard touchdown strike from Austin Reed to Malachi Corley with 11 :53 to play to go ahead 28-23.
The Hilltopper defense stood strong from there to close out the victory – the 200th win in program history at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
Anthony Johnson Jr. picked off a pass on Sam Houston’s ensuing possession after the go-ahead touchdown, Johnson recovered a fumble forced by Deante McCray on the Bearkats’ next possession, and Desmyn Baker closed out the game with an interception with less than a minute remaining after Sam Houston drove to the WKU 8-yard line.
“We had our backs against the wall, adversity, and we’re taught, we’re trained, to always face adversity no matter what,” McCray said.
The late forced turnovers came after the Hilltoppers battled through adversity, turning the ball over five times in the matchup.
Despite the turnovers, WKU still racked up 465 yards of offense, with 392 yards and three touchdowns coming from Reed’s arm. Corley had 10 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown, and is now four receptions from tying the program’s career record. Dalvin Smith added 125 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, and Craig Burt Jr. had six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Elijah Young led the Hilltoppers on the ground with 55 yards on 15 attempts.
“We just found a way to win,” Reed said. “Defense played really well. Guys made plays when they had to. Interesting game. Strange game. I don’t know that I’ve never been a part of a game like that in all aspects, but it happens sometimes. That’s ball. Thankful to get the win. Defense played really well, like I said, just overall.”
Defensively, five Hilltoppers finished with six tackles each – Rome Weber, Upton Stout, Kylan Guidry, Sebastian Benjamin, and Kenyonte Davis. Kendrick Simpkins added four tackles, including a team-high 1.5 sacks.
WKU took an early lead with Reed’s 45-yard touchdown strike to Smith, but Sam Houston went ahead in the second quarter, 13-7, with two touchdowns. The Hilltoppers retook the lead with a 3-yard touchdown run from Markese Stepp with 6:06 to play in the half, and added to the lead with Burt’s 26-yard touchdown reception from Reed.
Sam Houston added a 53-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter to make it a five-point game at the break, and the Bearkats took the lead with a 7-yard scoring run in the third quarter, but the Hilltoppers went ahead early in the fourth with Corley’s 75-yard touchdown in the 28-23 win.
“We pulled it together and it was a hard-fought victory for us, but offense and defense, we mended it together and we pulled it out,” Corley said. “Unreal and a great way to send the seniors out in our last game at The Houch.”
WKU has been to bowl games in nine of the last 11 seasons, and a bowl game this season will be the 10th in 12 years. The Hilltoppers have been to bowl games in each of Helton’s first four seasons, with a 3-1 record in those games.
“We celebrate all wins, so I’m a happy person tonight,” Helton said. “We get to be bowl eligible, which is five years in a row, which is a great honor here that we take very seriously. It’s very important for us to go to bowl games and to win bowl games. We were able to get that done tonight, so we’re a happy bunch. It was a great win.”
WKU will close out the regular season in Miami next weekend with a Saturday, Nov. 25 game at FIU. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT.