Just one week after seeing a fourth-quarter lead evaporate, the Western Kentucky University football team scored 15 unanswered points over the final 12:44 to come back for a 25-24 victory over North Texas Saturday on Senior Day at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
With the victory, the Hilltoppers concluded the regular season with a 7-5 overall record and a 4-4 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. WKU is assured of a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006 and 2007. The Hilltoppers will now await word on a possible postseason bowl game over the next week. North Texas ended its season with a 4-8 record and a 3-5 mark in the SBC.
“I told those guys ‘Just keep believing and we are going to win this game,’” said Hilltopper head coach Willie Taggart. “We just stayed positive. I think more than anything this is the first time in a long time where we stayed positive through adversity. We stayed positive and just kept working and it paid off for us.”
Trailing 24-10 entering the final period of play, the Hilltoppers got an immediate spark when Jonathan Dowling intercepted a Derek Thompson pass and returned its 39 yards for a touchdown, cutting the WKU deficit to eight points with 12:44 remaining after a failed PAT. Garrett Schwettman was able to add a 27-yard field goal at the 7:10 mark, pulling the Hilltoppers to within five at 24-19.
A quick three-and-out by the WKU defense gave the ball back to the Hillltoppers at their own 22 with 4:57 remaining. A 53-yard Antonio Andrews on first down quickly moved the Toppers down to the UNT 25. Two plays later, Andrews took a pitch and spun out a tackle to go 21 yards for a touchdown, giving WKU a 25-24 lead after a failed two-point try with just 3:30 remaining.
Facing a fourth-and-three at their own 35, the Mean Green got a completed pass from Thompson to Jeremy Brown, but Tyree Robinson dropped Brown four a one-yard loss on the play, turning the ball back over to the WKU offense with 2:09 remaining.
On a second-down play with under a two minutes remaining, Antonio Andrews broke free into the UNT secondary, but slid down short of the goal line to keep the clock moving. The Hilltoppers were able to kneel on the ball twice as North Texas did not call its final timeout, allowing the clock to expire and give WKU the one-point victory.
Andrews finished the day with 230 rushing yards — his second straight game, and third this season with at least 200 rushing yards. He also finished with 323 all-purpose yards, leaving him 274 away from breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA record.
The Hilltopper defense was able to force a punt on the game’s opening drive, giving the ball over to the offense at their own 18. Kawaun Jakes came out and completed five of six passes on the drive for 55 yards, including a four-yard TD throw to fellow senior Jack Doyle to cap off the 10-play, 82-yard drive and give WKU a 7-0 lead with 5:03 remaining in the opening quarter.
That was Jakes’ only TD pass of the game, giving him 50 for his Hilltopper career to tie the school record set by Justin Haddix.
The Mean Green quickly evened the score, however, as on a third-and-one play, Brandin Byrd broke free for a 61-yard touchdown run to tie the game at the 3:37 mark. After forcing a WKU punt early in the second quarter, North Texas was able to drive 88 yards in 10 plays, getting a 20-yard scoring run from Brown to take a 14-7 lead with 10:16 left before halftime.
UNT posted 116 of its 153 rushing yards in the first half.
Derek Akune came up with an UNT interception on the Hilltoppers’ next drive, returning the pick to the 10 yards line. However, the WKU defense was able to keep the Mean Green out of the end zone, holding them to a 22-yard Zach Olen field goal that made it a 17-7 score with 7:09 left in the second quarter.
The Mean Green got a fourth-down stop to again take over on offense, but missed a 49-yard field-goal try to give the ball back to the Hilltoppers with 2:01 left in the half. WKU was able to drive 48 yards down to the North Texas 21 before Schwettman knocked throw a 39-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 17-10 at halftime.
Turnovers negated scoring opportunities for both teams early in the third quarter, but late in the period the Mean Green were able to put together a six-play, 55-yard drive to extend their advantage. Two straight completion by Thompson quickly moved UNT deep into Hilltopper territory, and after three straight runs, Thompson was able to connect with Darnell Smith on a 12-yard scoring pass to stretch the lead to 24-10 in the final minute of the third period.
The Hilltoppers limited North Texas to just 30 yards in the final quarter, allowing the offense to finish off the comeback win.
Andrew Jackson led the WKU defense with a game-high 15 tackles including three tackles for loss. Kiante Young also recorded double-digit stops for the second straight game with 11.