One of the few weaknesses displayed by the WKU football team this season has been giving up long kickoff returns to the opposition. That issue came back to haunt the Hilltoppers in a big way Thursday night against Middle Tennessee.
WKU Athletic Media Relations has the recap:
A 97-yard kickoff return by Reggie Whatley with just over six minutes remaining in the game broke a 24-24 tie, and proved to be the winning score as Middle Tennessee handed the Western Kentucky University football team their second straight home loss 34-29 Thursday night at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
The loss dropped the Hilltoppers to 6-3 on the year and 3-2 in the Sun Belt Conference, while MTSU improved to 6-3 and 4-1 in the league.
After MTSU regained the lead on the kickoff return, the Hilltoppers were able to take the ball down to the Blue Raider 21 yard line, converting a pair of fourth-down plays on the drive. However, a Kawaun Jakes pass was tipped an intercepted by Kenneth Gilstrap at the six, giving the ball back to the Blue Raiders with 1:39 to play. WKU was able to stop the clock just one time as MTSU was able to run the clock down to five seconds remaining before calling its final timeout. Quarterback Logan Kilgore ran off the final five seconds, going out of the end zone for a safety as time expired to make the final margin five points.
The Hilltopper defense stopped the Blue Raiders on the first play of the fourth quarter, but a fumbled punt return gave the ball back to MTSU deep in WKU territory. The defense was again able to come up with a hold, however, forcing a 19-yard Carlos Lopez field goal to break a 24-24 tie and give Middle a 27-24 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
WKU was able to answer with a 10-play, 66-yard driving resulting in a 28-yard Garrett Schwettman field goal to tie the game for the third time at 27-27. However, Whatley was able to return the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, again putting Middle Tennessee in front 34-27 with 6:03 to play.
The Blue Raiders had little problem moving the football on the first drive of the game, doing nearly all their damage on the ground. Running back Jordan Parker accounted for 52 yards on the drive as MTSU quickly got into the Hilltopper red zone, and down inside the five. However, WKU was able to drop Parker for a loss on a third-and-goal from the one, forcing a 19-yard Lopez field goal to give the Raiders a 3-0 lead nearly five minutes into the game. After the Hilltoppers were forced to punt on their first possession, MTSU went back to work on the ground as Parker broke a 58-yard touchdown run to stretch the lead to 10-0 with 6:01 to go in the opening quarter.
The Hilltoppers were able to get on the board on their second offensive possession, driving 75 yards in six plays. After Jakes completed an 11-yard third-down pass to Mitchell Henry to keep the drive alive, the senior QB was able to hook up with freshman Austin Aikens on a 35-yard scoring pass as WKU cut its deficit to 10-7 with 2:38 to go in the first quarter.
The Blue Raiders were able to answer with their third scoring drive in as many tries, getting a 40-yard Whatley return on the kickoff to set them up midfield. It took MTSU just eight plays to cover 56 yards as Kilgore hooked up with Anthony Amos on an eight-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to stretch the lead 17-7 with 14:28 on the second-quarter clock.
WKU continued to keep pace on its next drive, covering 72 yards in 11 plays. Antonio Andrews accounted for 24 rushing yards on the drive, including a five-yard run on fourth down early in the possession. Andrews was then on the receiving end of a 24-yard Jakes scoring pass as the Hilltoppers cut it to a 17-14 score with 7:52 remaining before halftime.
The Hilltopper defense was able to force a punt on the Blue Raiders’ next drive, and was able to drive 36 yards before getting a 29-yard Schwettman field goal to tie the score at 17-17 with 3:50 left in the first half. WKU would get one more scoring chance in the closing second, but a Schwettman’s 47-yard field goal try as time expired fell short as the teams went to the locker room tied.
After WKU was forced to punt on the first drive of the second half, Middle Tennessee was able to eat up over six minutes on a 13-play scoring drive to regain the lead. Kilgore completed four of five passes on the drive for 48 yards on the drive, including a five-yard scoring pass to Amos as the Blue Raiders jumped back in front 24-17 with 5:33 left in the third quarter.
Andrews carried the load for the Hilltoppers when the ball came back their way, catching a seven-yard pass from Jakes on the first play before five straight runs for 34 yards moved WKU down to the Blue Raider 32 yard line. Jakes then threw his third touchdown of the game, connecting with Willie McNeal to again tie the game at 24-24. The pass was originally ruled incomplete, but a review showed McNeal had possession with one foot inbounds, causing the call to be reversed and giving WKU the score as the teams went into the fourth quarter all square.
When the dust settled, Andrews finished the night with career-best 392 all-purpose yards, rushing 25 times for 136 yards, while also catching five passes for 54 yards and a score. He also racked up 182 yards in kickoff returns and 20 yards in punt returns. He also eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the season, marking the 16th 1,000-yard season in Hilltopper football history.
Jakes completed 19 of 30 passes for 283 yards and three touchdown. He now has 18 TD throws on the season, which equals the school record set by Jeff Cesarone during the 1985 season. He was able to complete seven of those passes to McNeal for 119 yards — his second 100-yard receiving game in the last contest.
Parker finished the night with 32 carries for 149 yards for Middle Tennessee, while Kilgore completed 11 of 17 passes for 118 yards and two scores.
The Hilltoppers will be at home again next Saturday (Nov. 10) as they play host to Florida Atlantic for a noon (CDT) kickoff. The game will be televised by the Sun Belt Network on CSS, and will also be available on ESPN3.