Hilltoppers come out on top over FIU, first back-to-back wins of the season

FIU tight end Rivaldo Fairweather (13) sits on the field as Hiltopper linebacker Eli Brown runs to make a touchdown. WKU defeated FIU 38-17.

Matthew Hargrove

On an unusually warm late November afternoon, WKU (4-6), (3-3, C-USA) closed out its home season with an impressive 38-13 win over Florida International University (0-5), (0-3, C-USA). This victory for the Hilltoppers gave them their first win streak of the 2020 campaign.

WKU relied heavily on the run game to achieve their second win in a row, receiving 170-yards and a touchdown on the ground from the senior running backs Gaej Walker and Jakairi Moses. Walker ran for 127-yards, while Moses came up with the other 43-yards. 

“It was good to finally have a team win and to finally be able to put it together and do it on senior day,” head coach Tyson Helton said following the win. “It says a lot about our football team and our players.” 

Before the matchup even started, the Hilltopper sideline came out even more animated than in their previous games this season. That level of intensity did not however transition to the WKU offense right off the bat, as the Panthers held the Hilltoppers inside the nine-yard line on their opening drive.

“We really talked about bringing the energy and bringing the passion,” Helton said. “I really felt like that carried us through. With it being senior day I did want to make sure our seniors went out winning at home.” 

Redshirt senior quarterback Max Bortenschlager got the start at quarterback for FIU, and the veteran was effective immediately. Bortenschlager led a nine-play, 52-yard touchdown drive that ended with the signal-caller finding redshirt junior receiver J.J. Holoman in the endzone on a 28-yard dime. 

The WKU offense couldn’t get anything going on their second drive as well, going three and out. This gave Bortenschlager a chance to give his team an early two-possession lead, halfway through the first frame.

The veteran was unable to do so though, with the Hilltoppers forcing their first punt of the day and getting the ball back at their own 14-yard line.

Another unsuccessful drive by the WKU offense led to the end of the first quarter, with the Panthers still in control of the game at 7-0.

Pigrome found some rhythm on the Hilltoppers first drive of the second quarter, completing two passes over 15-yards. The completions led to redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson booting a 39-yard field goal to put WKU on the board.

All that momentum dwindled away quickly when freshman running back E.J. Wilson returned senior punter John Haggerty’s kickoff 100-yards into the endzone. Just like that, FIU increased their lead to 13-3 almost halfway through the second frame.

The Hilltoppers, needing a big score before the half, were able to do so thanks to a 65-yard drive that took 3:11. Pigrome used his speed to get into the endzone on a one-yard run to make it 13-10 Panthers, 30 minutes into the game.

Overall, Pigrome put together one of his best first-half performances of the season. The dual-threat quarterback threw for 110-yards on 19 passing attempts to add to his touchdown run. 

Pigrome’s counterpart, Bortenschlager, had 91 passing yards on 11 passing attempts to add to his touchdown pass back in the first quarter. The two were teammates at the University of Maryland from 2016-2019. 

The WKU defense came out strong to begin the third quarter, single-handedly giving the Hilltoppers their first lead of the game and more. 

A massive hit on Bortenschlager from senior linebacker DeAngelo Malone caused a fumble at the FIU 19-yard line, which was recovered for a touchdown by senior cornerback Roger Cray. 

Seventeen seconds later, the WKU defense capitalized off another Bortenschlager mistake with a pick-six from graduate linebacker Eli Brown. Both turnovers placed the Hilltoppers with a comfortable 24-13 lead halfway through the third quarter.

“It was a great feeling. My whole family was out there, phone blowing up right now. It’s something I needed for my exit, leaving with a bang,” Brown said.

Bortenschlager was replaced with freshman Stone Norton, who led his offense all the way to the Hilltoppers 33-yard line heading into the fourth quarter.

The promising looking drive though was stopped right there at the 33-yard line, after the Panthers couldn’t convert on fourth and eight.

After the WKU defense had all the highlight plays in third, it was time for the Hilltopper offense to make some noise of their own. 

Walker began the first drive of the final frame for WKU with a huge 54-yard run, making all the way inside the Panthers five-yard line. This run from Walker put him over 100-yards rushing for the game, and notching his first 100-yard rushing game of the season.

“With the 100-yard games I feel like you just got to break a couple long one’s and then you’re at 100, so I feel like that’s what I did and that’s how I got there,” Walker said.

Walker finished the drive off with a one-yard touchdown run to put WKU out of reach with a 31-13 lead.

31 points must have not been enough for the Hilltoppers, as they continued to keep their foot on the gas pedal in the fourth quarter.

Another monstrous rush from a WKU running back, which was a 28-yard carry from Moses, put the Hilltoppers inside the five-yard line once again. Pigrome took matters into his own hands, running four-yards into the endzone for his second rushing touchdown of the game.

FIU made their second switch of the game at quarterback in the final minutes of regulation, replacing Norton with redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins. Wiggins led a garbage time touchdown drive, in which the upperclassmen scored himself on a one-yard run. 

This moved the score to 38-21, which turned out to be the final count of Saturday afternoon’s senior day contest.

The Hilltoppers victory over the Panthers gave them their second win in a row, and moved their 2020 record to 4-6 heading into their final game of the season. FIU’s loss keeps them still winless on the year, moving their record to 0-5 and 0-3 in conference play.

Pigrome finished his final game at Houchens-Smith Stadium with two touchdown runs, with 121 passing yards to go with them. His top target was junior wideout Mitchell Tinsley, who had three catches for 28 receiving yards.

Everything went bad on offense for the Panthers on offense, with the exception of the effort shown from senior running back D’vonte Price. Price rushed for an outstanding 100-yards on 24 carries.

The final week of the regular season now begins, as WKU looks to end the season on a three-game win streak with a victory against the University of Charlotte (2-3), (1-3, C USA) next Saturday.

“It’s going to be a tough one,” Helton said. “It’s going to be a battle, they’re a good football team so it’s good having the momentum going into that game.” 

Football beat reporter Matthew Hargrove can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewHargrov1