Bowling Green, Ky. — Aided by a first-half stretch in which it forced four punts and a missed field goal to end five straight possessions in a full scrimmage Saturday morning at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, the Western Kentucky University defense showed it is making progress as spring practice begins to wind down.
The defense began that run on the second series of the day, forcing a three-and-out while giving up only six yards. Marcus Minor stopped Brad Savko after completions on second and third down to end the ensuing possession, while Meissan McDaniel tackled Brandon C. Smith for a five-yard loss before an incompletion forced a punt on the fourth drive of the event.
With the first-team offense back on the field, Minor and Rashad Etheridge combined to tackle Jessie Quinn for a two-yard loss on third-and-one from the defense’s 32-yard line. A 52-yard field goal attempt then sailed wide left.
The second-team defense then forced another three-and-out just before halftime.
Minor led all defense backs and the first-team with 10 total stops, which included seven solo. L.J. Harbison paced the linebackers with seven tackles (five unassisted), while Kyle Anderson was credited with six — including two behind the line of scrimmage — to lead all linemen.
McDaniel also made six stops, with Ryan Beard, Nick Brent, Chris Bullard, Braxston Miller, Orlando Misaalefua and Nick Hartnett all posting five tackles. Hartnett had a scrimmage-high 2.5 stops for loss, including an assist on second-and-goal and a solo tackle on third down after the offense had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line on a possession late in the second half.
That drive would also end with a missed field goal.
“Overall, I think when we go back and look at the film we will see this was one of the defense’s better days,” stated head coach David Elson. “We have a lot of young guys making youthful mistakes, but we haven’t backed off. We’ve continued to keep the pressure on and the intensity up.”
The offense ended up putting together seven scoring drives while running 98 plays, with K.J. Black leading the first-team on four of those possessions — three came before the break — and Smith guiding three. Black completed 21-of-27 passes for 134 yards, and he rushed seven times for 29 yards and a touchdown. Smith led all players with 124 yards on nine carries, including a 79-yard scoring run in the second half for the longest play of the day. The two accounted for 163 and 159 yards of total offense, respectively.
“K.J. continues to mature and make great decisions,” Elson said. “He’s getting the ball where it needs to go.”
Black capped the opening series of the day with a two-yard touchdown run, as he gained 19 yards on the ground and threw for 14 on the six-play, 50-yard march. He ended the defense’s dominant stretch by leading the offense 65 yards in 10 plays — completing 4-of-5 passes for 29 yards on the drive — with Tyrell Hayden ending the scoring drought with a nine-yard run around right end. Black was also 3-of-3 passing for 40 yards on the final possession of the first half, hitting Dustin Boyer for a 30-yard gain in a two-minute drill to help set up a 37-yard Tanner Siewert field goal.
Black led another drive — one that covered 34 yards in seven plays — that resulted in a 43-yard field goal from Zac Minturn ">Zac Minturn after the break.
On the second-team’s final possession of the first half, Smith and a trio of running backs moved the ball 65 yards before Marell Booker reached the end zone from three yards out. Smith rushed three times for 27 yards on his last drive of the day before Andrew McCloud ended an eight-play, 60-yard march with a one-yard touchdown run one snap after Smith carried for 15 yards to put the offense on the goal line.
All five touchdowns came on the ground and were scored by five different players as the Topper offense racked up 363 yards rushing and 557 total on the day. Bobby Rainey gained 48 yards on six carries and Hayden finished with 41 yards on six attempts. Black (seven for 29), McCloud (5-28), Booker (5-27) and Stephen Willis (6-24) all gained more than 20 yards rushing as well.
Quinn topped all players with five receptions, with Quinterrance Cooper and Brad Savko collecting four catches each. Wenquel Graves and Clark Jeter also chipped in with three catches.
“We’re more banged up than I can ever remember in spring practice,” said Elson. “It’s a physical game, but one part of being a college football player is being durable. We are being cautious with the older guys, however that has given the young guys a lot of opportunities and we are finding some things out. That’s what spring ball is for.”
WKU has one week of spring practice remaining. The Hilltoppers will close out a 4 p.m. (CDT) workout Wednesday with a mini-scrimmage and practice in helmets Thursday at 4:15 p.m. prior to Saturday’s annual Red-White Game. The spring game will kick off at 7 p.m. at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.