Bowling Green, Ky. — Despite 15 years between match-ups, it’s safe to say that if Thursday’s football game between Western Kentucky University and Middle Tennessee is any indication the rivalry will be a heated one by the time the Hilltoppers officially enter Sun Belt Conference play in 2009.
Only a field-goal attempt that sailed wide left as time expired prevented the two teams from going to overtime as WKU earned a 20-17 victory over the Blue Raiders at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium.
“With Middle Tennessee becoming a rival for us in the Sun Belt, this will do nothing but stir that rivalry,” said Hilltopper head coach David Elson. “Close games like this are what rivalry games are supposed to be like.”
The win was WKU‘s first over an NCAA Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) school since announcing its move to that level in November 2006.
Playing in just his fourth game on the collegiate level, it was redshirt freshman K.J. Black’s effort in the second half that helped the Toppers (3-1) pick up their third victory in a row and silence the crowd of 22,086 — the fifth-largest ever in the facility’s history. Black finished with 130 yards of total offense while leading WKU on two second-half scoring drives to break a halftime tie, as his 22-yard touchdown pass to Jake Gaebler on the first play of the fourth quarter provided the final margin of victory.
DeMarco McNair had given the Blue Raiders (0-4) a 17-13 lead with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter, supplying MT’s only points of the final 30 minutes with a four-yard run.
After that six-play, 71-yard march, Black engineered a 75-yard scoring drive that led to the victory. It was his two third-down completions to Curtis Hamilton for 31 yards and Gaebler for 10 that put the Hilltoppers in the red zone before — following two fumbles — he found the latter in the right corner of the end zone on third-and-goal.
He entered the contest for the first time on the second series of the second half, helping WKU to a 13-10 advantage with 6:14 left after a 34-yard Chris James field goal. While Black carried two times for 15 yards on the drive, it was a 27-yard run by Tyrell Hayden that put WKU in scoring position.
Black finished 5-of-7 passing for 74 yards and gained another 56 on 11 rushing attempts.
Hayden added 144 yards on 23 carries — the first 100-yard game of his career — as WKU gained 234 of its 346 yards on the ground. The Blue Raiders had almost 10 more minutes time of possession in the opening half, but the Hilltoppers ended up winning the battle for time of possession after holding the ball for 31:15 overall.
“Our run game was key, Tyrell did a great job and our quarterbacks did a good job reading and running the ball,” Elson said. “Those are signs of what we can do with this offense.”
MT still had a chance to force overtime after moving 49 yards in 44 seconds to reach the WKU-17, but Matt King’s attempt from 34 yards was wide left.
Dwight Dasher accounted for all those yards, finishing his first career start with 222 yards of total offense — he led the team with 53 yards on 16 rushing attempts and also was 14-of-24 passing for 169 yards. He hit Taron Henry twice on the drive, as Henry ended up leading all players with six receptions for 81 yards.
The Hilltoppers held MT to 288 yards overall, though, led by Blake Boyd’s career-best 10 stops (which included two behind the line of scrimmage). Andre Lewis added nine stops, Bo Smith collected eight and Dusty Bear recorded seven as WKU was credited with eight tackles for loss including a pair of sacks.
Although MT ran 16 more plays and outgained the Toppers 91-15 in the opening 15 minutes, the Toppers held a 10-3 advantage midway through the second quarter. WKU evened the score 3-3 when it marched 56 yards on 12 plays — taking more than five minutes off the clock — before James converted a field goal from 41 yards out with just over 12 minutes left before the break. The key play on the drive was Hayden’s career-long 30-yard run, which put the Hilltoppers at the MT-14 yard line.
The Toppers took a 10-3 lead nearly three-and-a-half minutes later, keeping the MT offense off the field when James recovered an on-side kick. Seven plays later, Hayden reached the end zone from nine yards out after David Wolke’s 29-yard completion to Gaebler moved WKU inside the MT-10.
Gaebler ended the night with three catches for 61 yards. Wolke was 4-of-8 passing for 38 yards while adding 28 yards on the ground. Hamilton led the Toppers with five receptions for 47 yards, with his first reception the 100th of his career.
The score was tied at the half because the Blue Raiders were able to take advantage of two Topper fumbles deep in their own territory — MT scored 10 points on drives that covered 48 yards.
Erik Walden hit Wolke for a two-yard loss on the Toppers’ second snap of the night, forcing a fumble that Wes Hofacker recovered at the WKU-18. After six Blue Raider plays, King converted a 19-yard field goal when Dasher was tackled two yards shy of the end zone by Lewis on third down. With less than four minutes to go in the second quarter, Andrew Harrington recovered a fumble at the WKU-32. Seven plays later McNair — who ended the game with 23 yards on 11 carries — tied the contest with 1:02 remaining before the break with a one-yard scoring run.
Roy Polite had a team-leading nine tackles, all solo, for the Blue Raiders, with Tavares Jones and Jeremy Kellem collecting seven stops apiece. Walden recorded six solo tackles, with Harrington adding five including two behind the line.
Dasher opened the game by leading MT 56 yards down the field on a drive that last just under 10 minutes — the Blue Raiders twice converted on fourth down on the possession — before King’s 39-yard field-goal attempt hit the right upright. Although the Blue Raiders ended the half with a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession, the Hilltoppers outgained MT by 10 yards, 135-125, in the first 30 minutes.
The Toppers return to action on Saturday, Sept. 29, when they travel to Bowling Green for a 5 p.m. (CDT) kickoff against the Falcons in the second of fourth straight road contests.