Champs Again! Hilltoppers win Conference USA title

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Western Kentucky’s offense drained nearly four minutes off the fourth-quarter clock en route to beating Louisiana Tech 58-44 on Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium, giving the Hilltoppers a second straight Conference USA championship.

Starting at its own 17, WKU ran eight plays to the LTU 13, then got a touchdown run from Anthony Wales to start the celebration with 13,213 fans with 58 seconds to play. A Branden Leston interception sealed it.

The win was Western’s seventh straight, 13th straight against a conference opponent at home and fourth straight in December. Saturday’s victory also gave the program back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history and back-to-back league championships for the first time since 1970-71.

Anthony Wales rushed 36 times for 209 and four touchdowns and his five total touchdowns set a new CUSA title game record. Mike White threw for 421 yards and three scores and Taywan Taylor caught seven passes for 194 yards and two TDs.

Western Kentucky (10-3) will head to a bowl game for the third straight season. An official announcement is expected Sunday.

Jonathan Barnes kicked a 24-yard field goal with 14:08 to play that cut Tech’s deficit to 48-44. Skyler Simcox stretched it back out to 51-44 with 7:19 to play thanks to his 34-yard field goal.

But in a highly-offensive game, that would be how the score would stay until Wales put the exclamation point on another championship season.

Western Kentucky took its opening drive 54 yards to the Louisiana Tech 15, but stalled there and had to settle for a 32-yard Simcox field goal three minutes into the game.

Tech got a 73-yard catch-and-run from Henderson to the WKU 10 on the ensuing drive. The Bulldogs, however, stalled as well and settled for a Barnes 25-yard field goal to knot the score.

The Hilltoppers, on the next drive, got a huge third-down pass from White to Norris that put WKU at the Tech 15. One play later, Wales went around left end and scored untouched to make it 10-3 halfway through the opening period.

Western’s defense got a stop after that, but White made the game’s first major mistake, throwing a second-down pass right to L’Jarius Sneed – who plays for Louisiana Tech. Sneed took it 48 yards the other direction for six to tie the score at 10-10.

White responded by leading a six-play drive that covered 75 yards and ended with another Wales TD run, this one from 26 yards out. That gave the Tops a 17-10 lead.

The Bulldogs came back with a 63-yard scoring drive and got a 6-yard TD pass from Ryan Higgins to Carlos Henderson. Not to be outdone, WKU went the other way in 1:34 and scored on the quarter’s final play – a 10-yard pass from White to Wales making it 24-17.

Tech opened the second quarter with a 5-yard TD pass from Higgins to running back Jarred Craft. White answered with a 45-yard bomb to Taylor that made it 31-24.

Barnes’ 36-yard field goal at the 8:26 mark got LTU within 31-27. White responded by throwing a 4-yard fade pass to Taylor for another touchdown giving the Hilltoppers a 38-27 lead.

That, somehow, turned out to be the final scoring play of the opening 30 minutes.

Louisiana Tech opened the third quarter with a 53-yard TD pass from Higgins to Kam McKnight. Higgins scrambled left on third-and-long, then found McKnight standing along 50 yards down the field for an easy six points.

Western tight end Shaq Johnson fumbled the ensuing kickoff return at his own 29 and Tech recovered. Six plays later, McKnight busted through the line on fourth-and-goal from the one to give the Dogs their first lead of the day at 41-38.

Simcox booted a 28-yard field goal with 5:45 to play that tied the game at 41-41.

The Tops regained the lead with a 15-yard run around left end by Wales. The senior bowled over a defender at the 5 before high-stepping into the end zone.

That gave Western Kentucky a 48-41 lead going into the final 15 minutes.

Higgins threw for 502 yards and three scores. Henderson caught nine balls for 202 yards and TD and Trent Taylor made 11 receptions for 108 yards. The Bulldogs finished with five rushing yards.

NOTES

• The Hilltoppers are the first team to repeat as Conference USA champions since 2008-09 when East Carolina accomplished that feat. Those teams were coached by Skip Holtz – now the coach of Louisiana Tech.

• The Hilltoppers have now won 12 conference titles in program history.

• Brohm is now 17-2 at home, 4-0 in December, 22-3 when scoring first, 23-4 when leading after the first quarter, 24-5 when leading at halftime, 28-4 when leading after the third quarter and 20-5 against conference opponents.

• Western Kentucky is 28-6 in its last 34 games and 21-2 in its last 23 conference games.

• Brohm is now 30-10 in 39 games at WKU and 20-5 against Conference USA. E.A. Diddle, Carl Anderson, Jack Clayton, Nick Denes, Jimmy Feix, Jack Harbaugh and David Elson all won at least 30 games for Western Kentucky.

• Western’s 13-game conference home winning streak is the longest such active streak in the nation. WKU won 15 straight league home games in the Ohio Valley Conference from 1973-1977.

• Western Kentucky is now 14-1 in games played in November and December on Brohm.

• WKU has not lost to the same team twice in one season since falling to Eastern Kentucky twice in 1987.

• Brohm will receive a $50,000 bonus for the win Saturday.

• Attendance on Saturday was announced as 13,213.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop