Bowling Green, Ky. — North Texas stopped the Western Kentucky University offense three times from the one-yard line in the closing seconds — including returning an interception 97 yards for a touchdown as time expired to pick up a 51-40 victory Saturday night at WKU’s homecoming game at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
The loss in the final minutes negated a 17-point second-half comeback by the Hilltoppers (2-7), and 100-yard rushing days by both Tyrell Hayden and David Wolke.
North Texas (1-8) scored what proved to be the winning touchdown with 2:27 remaining in the game when Giovanni Vizza found Casey Fitzgerald for a 27-yard scoring strike to give the Mean Green a 45-40 lead.
Stephen Willis was able to set up the Hilltopper offense deep in UNT territory as he returned the kickoff 43 yards to the Mean Green 46, and the offense started at the 31 yard line after a facemask penalty on the return.
Two straight runs by Wolke for 24 yards and a six-yard rush by Hayden set up WKU at the one as the clock neared one-minute mark. Twice WKU was stopped short of the goal line, forcing the Toppers to call their final timeout with 14 second remaining. On third down, Wolke was pressured, and his attempt the throw the ball away was intercepted by Tobe Nwigwe at the three yard line, and returned for a touchdown as time expired for the final 51-40 margin.
"It doesn’t get anymore frustration and disappointing than this," said Hilltopper head coach David Elson. "We did some things early that really hurt us, but I was happy about the way we responded and got back into it. You can’t focus on the last play. There were a lot of plays at different times that resulted in the outcome. I thought our offense did a heck of a job. David and Tyrell both had outstanding days running the football."
Wolke finished the day with a career-high 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while Hayden carried 17 times for 117 yards and a score. Those were the first two 100-yard rushing performances by a Hilltopper this season. Wolke also completed 13 passes for 190 yards and two scores.
The teams swapped the lead four times from late in the third quarter on. The Toppers capped off 20 unanswered third-quarter points with 1:20 left in the period when Hayden rushed 25 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as WKU regained a 34-31 lead — its first advantage since the first quarter. However, the Mean Green came back with a six-play, 48-yard drive when Vizza connected with Kevin Dickerson on a 18-yard scoring pass. The extra-point attempt was blocked, though, as the Toppers kept their deficit at three (37-34) early in the fourth quarter.
The WKU offense came right back, going 90 yards in nine plays to regain the lead when Wolke rushed for a TD from one yard out. However, Tanner Siewert’s extra-point attempt was blocked and returned by Craig Robertson for a defensive PAT as the Hilltoppers held on to a 40-39 lead with 9:54 remaining. After a Darvis McBride interception on the next possession set up WKU at the Mean Green 37, the Toppers again moved inside the five, but were unable to score as Siewert missed a 21-yard field goal to keep it a one-point game.
After the Topper defense forced UNT to punt, Kylie Hill picked off a Wolke pass at the WKU 37 with 4:36 remaining, and returned it 14 yards to 23 to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown pass.
Both teams moved the with relative ease on each of their first two drives, with the quarterbacks getting things done with their feet on the opening drives. The Hilltoppers needed just five plays to get into the endzone to start the game, with Wolke getting in from five yards out for the game’s first touchdown just two minutes in. Wolke rushed three times for 52 yards on that drive, including a 36-yard run that put WKU in the red zone.
Wolke finished the half with 50 rushing yards and connected on eight of 13 passes for 125 yards.
The Mean Green came back with a quick strike of their own on their first offensive possession, also scoring on just five plays. With UNT facing a third-and-two, quarterback Giovanni Vizza broke free on a draw up the middle for a 38-yard scoring run to tie the game at 7-7 with 10:56 on the first quarter clock.
The scoring continued on the Toppers’ second possession, as they scored in just 19 seconds when Jake Gaebler took a screen pass from Wolke 62 yards to paydirt. However, UNT put together another scoring drive, going 69 yards in just six plays as Vizza found Brock Strickler for a 15-yard scoring pass to again even things up at 14-14.
Vizza threw for 214 yards in the contest — completing 23 of 37 passes — and also connected on four scoring passes. Stricker proved to be his main target, pulling in eight catches for 86 yards.
Gaebler continued to be WKU’s main receiving weapon as he hauled in eight catches for a season-high 125 yards and a touchdown. It was the second 100-yard game for Gaebler in the past three outings.
A Hilltopper fumble at their own 11 yard line gave North Texas its first lead of the game as a two-yard rush by Cam Montgomery made it 21-14 game at the 6:14 mark of the opening period. On the day, Montgomery finished with a team-high 130 yards on 21 carries.
After combining for 259 yards on the five possessions of the game, both offenses were limited to just 110 total yards on the next six series.
UNT was able to add a score with 2:46 remaining in the half as Jeremy Knott connected on a 42-yard field goal to take a 24-14 lead into the locker room at intermission.
The Mean Green opened up a 17-point lead with 8:05 remaining in the third quarter when Vizza and Stricker hooked up again — this time for a nine-yard score — to cap off an 80-yard drive and make it a 31-14 score.
Andrew McCloud set up WKU for its first score since the 10:28 mark of the first quarter as he returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to the North Texas 32 yard line. On the very first play, Willis came around on a reverse and made his way to the goal line as the Hilltoppers cut their deficit to 31-21 with 7:44 to go in the third quarter.
WKU was able to get the ball right back as on the kickoff Chris Franklin recovered a fumble forced by Mark Santoro to set up the offense at the 26 yard line. On the very first play, Wolke found Quinterrance Cooper in the corner of the endzone. After a missed PAT, the Toppers scored 13 points in just 28 seconds to get back within four points at 31-27 before the teams combined for 33 points in the final 22 minutes of action.
In all, the Hilltoppers racked up a season-high 504 yards of total offense, while allowing 387 yards to the Mean Green. WKU will return to the road next Saturday, visiting Troy for a 2:30 p.m. (CST) kickoff. The game will be televised locally in Bowling Green on WKYU-PBS (Cable channel 11).