Bowling Green, Ky. — It seemed as if everything but the location was the same as last year when Western Kentucky University faced Chattanooga Saturday at Finley Stadium. Marell Booker scored from 12 yards out with less than a minute remaining, then Brad Cloud and Travis Watters broke up passes in the end zone in the final 10 seconds to help the Hilltoppers hold on for a 28-21 victory over the Mocs.
Tied at 21-21 with just under six minutes to go, UTC (2-7) got the ball back at its 40-yard line following Buster Skrine’s second interception of the game. The Mocs picked up a pair of first downs to move to the WKU-27, but Bo Smith picked off Antonio Miller’s third-down pass to give WKU the ball back with 2:41 remaining.
The Toppers (6-3) then marched 75 yards on six running plays before Booker gave WKU its first lead since the opening minutes of the second quarter. Stephen Willis gained 12 yards on the initial play of the final drive, and Tyrell Hayden followed with three carries for 28 more yards. After a 23-yard Hayden run, Booker found the left corner of the end zone by diving over a Moc defender.
WKU (6-3) defeated UTC 28-21 last year in Bowling Green after thwarting the Mocs in the final seconds.
“That was about as ugly as it gets when it comes to a victory. We are not going to be real pleased with what we see on the film, but at the end of the day the objective is to win the football game,” said Hilltopper head coach David Elson. “Our guys, our senior leaders, stepped up and made the plays that we needed to make towards the end of the game.
“You've got to give a lot of credit to Chattanooga. I said it earlier in the week, and I’ll say it again, they are a lot better than that record indicates. They are a well-coached team with good players that is just coming up short for some reason. I would have been surprised if we had just completely rolled over them.”
Hayden gained 60 of his career-best 149 yards in the final 15 minutes. Curtis Hamilton also produced big numbers in the second half, grabbing two receptions for 97 yards, adding a 26-yard punt return and 22-yard kick return following the break too. He finished with a season-high 188 all-purpose yards.
The Hilltoppers twice had to recover from a seven-point deficit.
After falling behind for the first time, 14-7, with just under three minutes left in the second period, WKU evened the score just before the break, answering the Moc offense with a nine-play, 63-yard drive that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass from David Wolke to Jessie Quinn — his first career reception for a score — with 23 seconds to go in the period. Hayden picked up first downs with runs of 13 and 10 yards around an 11-yard gain by Wolke, who finished the drive with a first-down completion to Hamilton before connecting with Quinn.
With both offenses failing to move the ball through most of the third period, it was the UTC defense that gave the lead back to the Mocs. Skrine intercepted a pass that was first deflected by Jeff Phillips, returning it 45 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown.
On the first play of the Toppers’ ensuing drive, Wolke hit Hamilton for a 53-yard gain to put them in UTC territory. WKU would move to the goal line, but after a delay of gain penalty on fourth down it missed an opportunity to cut into the lead when a field-goal attempt sailed wide left. When the Hilltoppers got the ball back with nine-and-a-half minutes to go in the game, Wolke found Hamilton for 44 yards on the first snap of the drive to again get WKU on the Mocs’ half of the field. Willis scored from 11 yards out four plays later to knot the score 21-21.
Willis ran five times for 30 yards to help the Toppers post 259 yards on the ground. They finished with 484 yards of total offense as Wolke completed 13-of-23 attempts for 213 yards through the air. It was the first 200-yard game of his career.
Defensively WKU gave up just over 400 yards, although the Mocs were able to gain just 153 in the second half with 55 of those coming in the final minute after the Hilltoppers had taken the lead. Andre Lewis led the unit with nine tackles (eight solo), while Ben Sowders collected seven unassisted stops and Marcus Minor finished with six including two for loss. Dusty Bear also was credited with six tackles in his first game back from an injury suffered at Ball State, with Lewis and Dan Cline both breaking up two passes.
Erroll Wynn’s career-long 57-yard run helped the Mocs take their first lead with less than three minutes to go before the half. Starting at its own 23-yard line, he gained four yards on UTC’s first play of the drive before taking the ball to the WKU-16 on his second carry of the possession. Bryan Fitzgerald then carried two more times in relief of Wynn, reaching the end zone from five yards out for a 14-7 advantage.
Wynn collected 131 yards on 19 carries and Fitzgerald chipped in with 17 attempts for 81 more as UTC gained 238 yards on the ground.
On its first possession of the day, WKU needed just five plays to take a 7-0 lead as it used two big plays to move 78 yards. Hayden reached midfield with a 24-yard gain on the Toppers’ second snap before Wolke ended the drive with a 51-yard completion to Jake Gaebler in which the receiver caught the pass near the line of scrimmage before racing down the right sideline untouched.
Gaebler had five catches for 90 yards, matching Hamilton for team-high honors in the former category. Hamilton finished with 95 receiving yards.
The Hilltoppers had multiple chances to add to that lead. Their next two drives started near midfield or in Moc territory, but the first ended with a three-and-out before the next was thwarted by a fumble caused by Joseph Thornton that was recovered at the UTC-18. WKU also advanced as far as the Moc eight-yard line in the second quarter before K.J. Black was sacked on fourth-and-one by Steven Mills.
Mills posted seven tackles, and Skrine was credited with six. Chris Camacho — who forced two fumbles — and Aaron Adams led the Mocs with nine total stops apiece.
Instead, UTC evened the scored with just under 13 minutes left in the second quarter after going 82 yards in 10 plays following the fumble. Wynn picked up one first down on the first three plays of the possession before Miller completed a pair of first down passes to move the Mocs 33 more yards. Jordan Hazard gained 14 yards on a rush to set up first-and-goal, with Miller posting UTC’s first points of the game with a three-yard run on third down.
Miller completed 16-of-28 passes for 163 yards, including finding Clint Woods nine times for 74 yards. He had scored all three of the Mocs’ touchdowns in last year’s match-up.
The Hilltoppers are next in action Saturday when they play host to Sun Belt Conference leader Troy on Homecoming weekend. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. (CST).