Bowling Green, Ky. — It took an outstanding individual performance on offense and a group effort on defense to help Western Kentucky University pull out the “Battle of the Bluegrass” against Eastern Kentucky Saturday at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
Curtis Hamilton caught a career-high 12 passes for 139 yards while the Hilltoppers limited the Colonels to 113 yards of total offense over the final three quarters to earn a 26-6 victory, their fifth in the last six meetings in the series. It was WKU’s second win in as many outings as it improved to 2-1, while EKU fell to 1-2.
Hamilton’s previous career high was nine receptions last fall, a total that the wide receiver equalled in the first half alone. That included a 19-yard gain on 3rd-and-10 on WKU’s first scoring drive of the contest, as he accounted for six receptions and 67 yards in the second quarter. With the addition of an eight-yard run in the opening period, Hamilton finished with 147 all-purpose yards.
“Curtis is one of the best players we’ve had around here in a long time,” said WKU head coach David Elson. “I’m proud of him, he came out and did some really good things today.”
EKU actually racked up 102 yards of total offense in the opening 15 minutes. The Colonels opened the scoring after marching 59 yards on seven plays on their first series, as Taylor Long hit a 26-yard field goal with just over 11 minutes remaining. And, after recovering a fumble just shy of midfield EKU drove into the red zone before Mark Dunn was stopped for a one-yard loss by Dan Cline and Blake Boyd on 4th-and-1 from the WKU-19.
“Our players were so focused on this football game, I was afraid maybe too much — early on they kind of showed that,” Elson said. “But, we settled down and got the job done. Defensively we got off a little slow, but we got it together.”
The Colonels had just seven yards in the second quarter while running eight plays without picking up a first down, as WKU would go on to score 19 unanswered points to take control of the contest.
Dusty Bear led the unit with eight stops, including a sack for a loss of nine yards. Marion Rumph collected seven tackles, with both Alonzo Higgins and Andre Lewis contributing six each. Rashad Etheridge broke up two passes while Marcus Minor deflected one, and Bo Smith accounted for the group’s only turnover with an interception in the second quarter.
Actually, special teams play set up the Hilltoppers’ first score of the game — after Jeremy Moore’s 45-yard punt left the Colonels at the EKU-3, Higgins tackled Bobby Washington in the end zone to draw WKU to within 3-2 two minutes into the second quarter. K.J. Black then came on after the free kick to direct the Topper offense for the first time in the game, and promptly led a 10-play, 63-yard drive that culminated with a seven-yard scoring pass to Quinterrance Cooper in the right corner of the end zone. Black kept the possession alive by finding Cooper for 11 yards and Hamilton for 19 to convert a pair of third-down situations.
WKU extended that advantage to 12-3 when — after Smith intercepted Colonel quarterback Josh Greco on his first snap of the contest — it drove 42 yards in eight plays before Chris James connected on a 35-yard field goal with just over five minutes left before intermission.
The Hilltoppers would end up collecting 422 yards of total offense, including 286 through the air. David Wolke completed 16-of-28 passes for 172 yards, while Black finished 9-of-13 passing for another 114 yards. Cooper had four catches for 61 yards, Jake Gaebler added four receptions for 44 yards and Wenquel Graves had two catches as well.
With 40 yard on 10 carries, Wolke finished with 212 yards of total offense. Black ended up with 141 total yards after carrying eight times for 27 yards.
WKU added 136 yards on the ground, paced by Tyrell Hayden’s 47 yards on 20 carries — his one-yard run with 1:42 remaining in the game closed out the scoring.
Not only did special teams lead to the Toppers’ first points of the contest, their punt return unit contributed the first score of the second half as well. After limiting the Colonels to one first down on their first possession after the break, Jihad Morris blocked a punt that Stephen Willis recovered in the end zone for a 19-3 advantage.
Moore later helped keep EKU at bay, twice pinning the Colonels inside their five-yard line in the final period. Long was able to add to their scoring with a 23-yard field goal with two-and-a-half minutes to go in the third quarter, but EKU ran just one play on the Hilltoppers’ half of the field over the final 15 minutes.
“I can’t say enough about Jeremy’s performance,” said Elson. “Special teams play was really a big difference for us in this game.”
Brandon Gathof’s 12 tackles for the Colonels led all players — he also recorded an interception and a pass defensed — while Jules Montinar finished with 11 stops and Justin Curry 10.
Both Dunn and Washington posted 43 yards rushing, and Allan Holland contributed 35 in addition to completing 13-of-23 passes for another 83 yards. Garnett Phelps caught two passes for 29 yards and Kyle Barber grabbed two for 25.
The Hilltoppers return to action Thursday when they visit Middle Tennessee in the first of four straight road games. Kickoff in Murfreesboro is set for 6 p.m. (CDT).