Tops take home opener, 41-24, over South Florida
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - After a bit of a slow start, the Western Kentucky football team found its rhythm and took down South Florida 41-24 in the season opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
The Hilltoppers (1-0) fell behind 17-7 by the 13:31 mark of the second quarter, but outscored the Bulls 34-7 from there to clinch the first victory of the fall.
“Really good win,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “We’re very proud of our football team. A lot of adversity today that we fought through. You’re going to have ups and downs in game one, but to see how our team responded in every clutch, critical situation was fantastic.”
WKU put up 465 yards of offense in the game, including 336 through the air from Austin Reed, the nation’s leading passer during the 2022 season. He finished the day completing 29 of 50 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and added 27 yards and a touchdown on three rushing attempts.
Reed’s top target was Dalvin Smith, who had seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. Blue Smith had 50 yards on five catches, Malachi Corley had 50 yards on four receptions and K.D. Hutchinson hauled in four catches for 35 yards. Moussa Barry made the most of his one reception – taking it 51 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Hilltoppers a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
“Keep plugging – that first game is always going to be kind of sloppy,” Reed said. We haven’t played a football game since December 21st. As much practicing as you do never prepares you for when those lights come on, but to go away with a 41-24 win against an AAC opponent after the first-game jitters and sloppiness is a great thing to leave with. You can play better with a win than a loss so that’s how we feel now.”USF (0-1) struck first with a 6-yard scoring run, but the Hilltoppers evened things up just over four minutes later with a 2-yard touchdown run from Markese Stepp after Desmyn Baker got the ball back for the offense with an interception.
The Bulls posted back-to-back scoring drives – a quick-strike touchdown and a field goal – to go ahead 17-7, but the Hilltoppers evened the score before half and didn’t trail again.
Lucas Carneiro made it a one-possession game with a 41-yard field goal with 7:37 to play until the break and Reed capped off a nine-play, 66-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run to make it 17-17 game heading into the third quarter.
WKU took its first lead with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Reed to Smith within the first two minutes of the second half, and the Bulls evened things up 24-24 less than three minutes later.
Barry hauled in his first catch and touchdown as a Hilltopper – the 51-yard strike – to put WKU ahead 31-24 with 8:03 to play in the third quarter.
The Hilltoppers added some insurance late with a 42-yard field goal from Carneiro at the 3:19 mark of the fourth quarter and a defensive touchdown from Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year JaQues Evans. Evans stripped the quarterback and returned it 27 yards to the end zone to cap off the 41-24 victory.
“We just got to keep playing,” Evans said. “I knew we had to go out there and close out the game. (Helton) always says big-time players make big-time plays in big moments. I consider myself one of the big-time players, so I had to make a big play.”
WKU will remain home next weekend. The Hilltoppers will face Houston Christian at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
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