Panthers pummel WKU as Tops eliminated from postseason

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Western Kentucky found new and inventive ways to shoot itself in the foot over and over again Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium. Visiting Florida International went about its business and rolled over the Hilltoppers 38-17.

The loss eliminated WKU (1-7, 0-4 Conference USA) from making the postseason for the first time since 2013 and clinched a second consecutive losing campaign for the first time since 2009-10. The Panthers (6-2, 4-0 CUSA), who won their second straight against Western after dropping four in a row, became bowl eligible with the win.

James Morgan threw for 171 yards and three touchdowns in the victory for FIU.

Western Kentucky was 7 of 14 on third downs, failed to convert a fake field goal, had a field goal go off in the upright and failed on a two-point conversion.

The Hilltoppers lost a fourth straight home game for the first time since losing 18 in a row at home from Oct 11, 2008-Oct. 22, 2011 and lost a fifth straight conference game for the first time since starting Sun Belt Conference play 0-10 from 2009-10.

At 1-7, WKU is also off to its worst start since a 1-8 beginning to 2010. And Saturday's loss was the worst home defeat for Western in a conference game since losing 33-6 to North Texas on Oct. 30, 2010.

The Hilltoppers travel to play rival Middle Tennessee (5-3, 4-1 CUSA) on Friday.

Western Kentucky opened the game with an 11-play drive that stalled at the FIU 26. On fourth down, kicker Ryan Nuss eyed a 43-yard field goal, but the Tops tried to execute a fake instead – Nuss’ pass out to the right was broken up by Stantley Thomas-Oliver.

International took that bit of momentum and capitalized with an impressive 16-play drive that swallowed nine minutes off the clock, converted three third downs and one fourth down. Morgan hit receiver Maurice Alexander on a 6-yard pass making it 7-0 with 2:22 left in the opening quarter.

The Hilltoppers put together a positive drive early in the second quarter that began after Ta’Corian Darden broke up a 4th-and-1 pass in the left flat. Western drove to the FIU 5 where Alex Rinella came out and tried a 22-yard field goal that boinked off the right upright.


Midway through the second quarter, Rinella shanked a punt that sailed out of bounds at his own 39. Five plays later Morgan hit Bryce Singleton on a 5-yard out route in the front of the right side of the end zone putting FIU up 14-0.

Rinella kicked a 23-yard field goal just before the break sending the Tops into the locker room down 14-3.


Florida International set up its third score on the night a 52-yard pass from Morgan to Austin Maloney down to the 6. D’Vonte Price scored on the next play making it 21-3 with 12:06 left in the third.

Western’s defense appeared to hold FIU to a 35-yard field goal toward the end of the third period, by Jahcour Pearson roughed kicker Jose Borregales and the Panthers got new life at the WKU 9. Morgan found Maloney again, this time from the 4, to up the lead to 28-3.



Western Kentucky finally put together a TD-scoring series to begin the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Steven Duncan punched in a 1-yard keeper to draw the Tops within 28-9 after a failed two-point conversion with 11:54 to play.

Borregales kicked a 35-yard field with at the 5:20 mark and WKU's D'Andre Ferby returned from injury to dive in from a yard out with 1:55 left. Price scored from 58 yards out shortly thereafter to provide the final margin.


NOTES

• Under coach Mike Sanford, WKU is now 4-8 in conference games, 4-6 in home games, 6-10 in night games, 3-4 in October, 2-8 when the opponent scores first, 1-8 when trailing after the first quarter, 2-8 when trailing at the half, 1-9 when trailing after the third quarter, 1-9 when scoring 20 points or less and 4-14 when the opponent scores 20 points or more.

• Western Kentucky and Florida International met Saturday for the 12th time in a series dating back to 2002. The series is now tied 6-6.

• WKU is 54-30-3 all-time in homecoming games.

• Western Kentucky is now 7-14 under Sanford and 2-12 in its last 14 games.

• Attendance was announced as 15,138 giving WKU a season average of 16,234 after four home games.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop