For the second straight season, the Western Kentucky University football team has reached bowl eligibility after a 14-6 victory at Florida International Saturday night.The win improved the Hilltoppers to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Sun Belt Conference, while the Panthers fell to 1-8 and 0-5 in the league.
Defensively, WKU recorded a season-best nine sacks — five of which came from Quanterus Smith. It was also the second straight year that the Hilltoppers did not allow a touchdown to FIU, winning last year’s matchup 10-9 and allowing three field goals.
The Panthers stuck with the first big offensive play of the game when a Wayne Times wide-receiver pass was completed to Willis Wright. Wright was able to get up the sidelines for 69 yards and an apparent touchdown, but Jonathan Dowling was able to chase Wright down from behind as strip the ball at the two-yard line. Cam Thomas recovered the ball for WKU in the end zone as the Hilltoppers took over offensively after the touchback.
The Hilltoppers were unable to take advantage of the turnover, however, and punted the ball back to the Panthers near midfield. FIU was able to drive down inside the WKU red zone before settling for a 29-yard Jack Griffin field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 3:51 to go in the opening quarter.
After a botched kickoff attempt by FIU, the Hilltoppers were able to take over near midfield. Two long pass plays from Kawaun Jakes to Jack Doyle — one for 23 yards and another for 20 — got the Hilltoppers down to the FIU one-yard line. Kadeem Jones was able to cap off the five-play, 53-yard drive with a one-yard scoring run as WKU jumped in front 7-3 with 1:10 to go in the first.
The Hilltopper defense got a second fumble recovery when Kiante Young stripped Kedrick Rhodes and recovered the fumble at the WKU 23. The WKU offense was able to eat up 7:44 of clock on a 14-play drive, but was stopped on fourth-and-one at the three as the Panthers took over deep in their own territory. Neither team would be able to put up points the rest of the half as the Hilltoppers held their 7-3 lead going into the locker room at intermission.
For the second time in the game, FIU was able to stop the Hilltoppers on a fourth-down play, taking over at its own 29. The Panthers were able to drive into the Hilltopper red zone, but a third-down sack by Smith forced FIU into a long field-goal try. Griffin’s 40-yard attempt sailed wide left, as the Hilltoppers maintained their four-point lead heading into the final quarter of play.
The Hilltoppers were forced to punt on their next possession, and Hendrix Brakefield’s kick was downed at the one-yard line. However, the Panthers were able to get out of the shadow of their end zone, and again move into WKU territory. After an incomplete pass on third down, Griffin was able to connect on a 39-yard field goal to cut the Topper lead to 7-6 with 8:20 to play.
The Panthers got the ball back with four minutes remaining at its own 25, but was unable to get a first down as Smith posted his career-best fourth sack of the night to put FIU back to its own 17. A low snap on a fourth-down punt try forced the FIU punter to scramble, where he was tackled by Bar’ee Boyd at the six. With the short field, the Toppers needed just two plays before Antonio Andrews scored three yards out to push the WKU lead to 14-6 with 2:24 remaining.
FIU was able to drive down the field in the final minutes, including completing a fourth-down play to get to the Hilltopper 21 with eight seconds left. But Smith recorded his fifth sack of the game, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Hilltoppers as time expired as WKU held on for the 14-6 victory.
The Hilltopper defense forced four turnovers in the game, equaling the season high set by in the victory at Kentucky on Sept. 15.
Andrews finished the game with 27 carries for 158 yards and the game-clinching touchdown. He recorded 108 of those yards after halftime. It was the sixth straight 100-yard game for Andrews — the longest active streak in the nation by a running back. Jakes completed 14 of 21 passes for 128 yards, hitting Doyle four times for 63 yards.
The Hilltoppers will have a short week of preparation before hosting Middle Tennessee on Thursday (Nov. 1) at 8:15 p.m. (CDT) in a nationally televised game on ESPNU.