Richmond, Ky. — In quite possibly the final "Battle of the Bluegrass" for the foreseeable future, the Western Kentucky University football team blanked Eastern Kentucky in the second half, and used two quick scores late in the third quarter and early in the fourth to pull away for a 37-13 win in the 85th meeting between the two rivals Saturday night at Roy Kidd Stadium.
The Hilltoppers (1-1) picked up 248 yards of offense on the ground, while limiting the Colonels to just 27 rushing yards on 14 attempts. It was the fewest net rushing yards WKU has allowed to a Division I opponent since Western Illinois gained 19 net yards in a 42-7 Topper win on Oct. 22, 2005 in Macomb, Ill. WKU held West Virginia Tech to -27 yards rushing early in the 2007 campaign.
"It always feels good beating the Colonels," said Hilltopper head coach David Elson — who is now 5-1 against Eastern Kentucky in his six seasons as head coach. "I’m really proud of our guys. They came out in the second half and got the job done tonight."
Leading by just three at the start of the second half, WKU forced the Colonels to punt on their first two possessions of the third quarter, but also came up empty on its first drive. The Toppers got the ball back after a punt with 5:22 left in the period, and David Wolke — who replaced an injured K.J. Black at quarterback late in the first quarter — led the squad on a 10-play, 74-yard drive as Darrius Brooks scored on a 17-yard run to give WKU a 23-13 lead late in the period.
On the drive, Wolke converted two third-and-long plays to keep the possession alive. He finished the game completing 9 of 18 passes for 84 yards, and also rushed nine times for 21 yards.
On the ensuing kickoff, the WKU special teams forced the only turnover of the game as Chris Franklin recovered a Stephon Fuqua fumble at the EKU 20 yard line.
Four plays later — and on the first snap of the fourth quarter — Wolke found Tristan Jones for a two-yard score to put the Hilltoppers in front 30-13.
"I thought the key to this one was our offense getting that first score of the second half, then creating the turnover," added Elson. "That sequence really put them back on their heals, and gave our guys the momentum to finish off the game."
The defense forced EKU into a pair of punts and got two fourth-down stops on the Colonels’ last four possessions. Bobby Rainey then capped off a 10-play, 51-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run for his first career score with 47 seconds left to give WKU the 24-point margin of victory.
In all, the Hilltoppers allowed EKU just 79 yards of total offense in the second half — including -2 yards rushing. The Topper defense was also able to get pressure on Colonel quarterback Allen Holland late in the game. After Holland completed 18 of his first 22 passes, he finished by connecting on just six of his final 19 throws — finishing the game with 228 passing yards.
The two teams scored on the first six possessions of the game, with WKU holding the ball for nearly 18 minutes in the opening half. In fact, the Hilltoppers marched 81 yards on 18 plays and held the ball for over seven minutes before punching in the first score of the game on a four-yard Marell Booker touchdown run.
The Toppers’ only other touchdown of the half also came on the ground early in the second quarter when Tyrell Hayden got in from a yard out to give them a 13-3 lead after a missed extra-point attempt.
The Colonels got a 46-yard field goal from Taylor Long on their opening drive, then answered WKU’s second touchdown when quarterback Allen Holland scored on a six-yard run to pull EKU within three at 13-10 with 11:35 remaining in the first half.
The teams traded field goals on their next two possessions, with Tanner Siewert hitting a career-long 48-yard try to again give the Hilltoppers a six-point lead. Long again answered with a 41 yarder with 3:01 on the clock to make it 16-13. WKU had a chance to extend its lead right before the half, but 45-yard field goal attempt was blocked as it remained a three-point game at intermission.
The Toppers outgained EKU 214-176 in the first 30 minutes of action, racking up 132 yards on the ground. For the game, 60 of WKU’s 85 plays were runs as it tallied 248 yards on the ground. Hayden led the way with a game-high 98 yards on 26 carries, and accounted for one of WKU’s three rushing TDs. Booker averaged 6.1 yards per carry — tallying 49 yards on eight runs. Brooks finished the night with 76 all-purpose yards, rushing twice for 33 yards and a score, while catching five passes for 43 yards. Jake Gaebler led the Topper receiving corp with 45 yards on five catches.
Defensively, Alonzo Higgins recorded double-figure tackles for the second straight game, tallying a team-high 11 stops. Blake Boyd also finished with seven tackles — including a sack, while Darvis McBride and Ryan Beard accounted for five tackles each.
The 27 points equalled the most scored by a Hilltopper squad in Richmond since a 47-9 win on Nov. 10, 1934. WKU also scored 37 points in a 37-21 win over the Colonels on Sept. 13, 1997.
The Toppers will play the final of three straight road games to open the 2008 season next Saturday (Sept. 13) as they visit #13 Alabama for a 6 p.m. (CDT) kickoff in Tuscaloosa. That game will be televised locally on tape delay at 9 p.m. on WKYU-PBS.