Hilltoppers prepare for final game at Charlotte

WKU’s Ty Storey (11), runs with the ball away from the Charlotte 49ers during the second quarter of the game on Saturday, October 19, 2019. Hilltoppers defeated Charlotte with a final score of 30-14.

Matthew Hargrove

WKU (4-6), (3-3, C-USA) electrified Houchens Smith Stadium in the second half of senior day to pull off the 38-14 beat down of Florida International University (0-5), (0-3, C-USA).

The Hilltoppers outscored the Panthers 28-8 in the final 30 minutes of Saturday’s affair, which also helped WKU reach their first winning streak of the 2020 campaign.

Senior running back Gaej Walker had his best performance of the season going for 127-rushing yards and a touchdown, as well as a 54-yard run in the fourth quarter. This was Walker’s first 100-yard rushing game since he opened up last year’s season executing 152-yards on the ground against the University of Central Arkansas.

Now the Hilltoppers will enter the final week of the season playing their best football and having to face Charlotte University (2-3), (2-1, C-USA) on the road. 

That matchup will have to wait till after Thanksgiving break though, as Saturday’s event has been rescheduled due to COVID-19 complications. Kickoff at Jerry Richardson Stadium is set for Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 9:30 a.m. C.T.

“I think it’s a good bonus for us,” Helton said. “We haven’t had any mishaps, as far as missing games or practices so we’re able to gain a couple practices. It just gives you that much more preparation to get ready for them, so I look at it as a good thing.”

This will be the first regular season game played in December for WKU in 11 years. The Hilltoppers lost on Dec. 3, 2009, 24-20 to Arkansas State University. Hilltopper legend Bobby Rainey Jr. rushed for 70-yards and a touchdown that day against the Red Wolves.

Despite an early start time, a win against the 49ers will give WKU a 5-6 record for Helton’s second stint with the team. The five wins does not promise a bowl game, but it does give them a chance and Helton is fully aware of that.

“That’s totally out of our hands,” Helton said. “What we get to control though, we need to control and that’s going to Charlotte and winning that game. Then we’ll see from there.”

This in fact is not the final game of the season for Charlotte though, as they still have three games to make up on their schedule. The 49ers have also had two games canceled this season to No. 25 ranked university of North Carolina and Gardner-Webb University.

If it truly wasn’t for that remarkable second half of Saturday’s game, the Hilltoppers could have easily been eating turkey this Thanksgiving with a subpar 3-7 record.

WKU was only able to obtain 10 points in the first two quarters behind Graduate quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome’s 110 passing yards and touchdown run.

FIU, who led 13-10 going into the locker room, received 91-passing yards and a touchdown pass from their starting redshirt junior quarterback in Max Bortenschlager.

A halftime pep talk from Helton and the rest of the Hilltopper coaching staff must have given their players a boost. WKU looked like a totally new team the rest of the way, and the push was due in large part to the class of 2021.

“We knew we had to help the offense out as much as we could, so we had to get the turnovers,” senior defensive end Devon Key said.

Roughly five minutes into the third quarter, Bortenschlager fumbled after a brutal hit from senior linebacker DeAngelo Malone. The ball was picked up at the Panther’s 19-yard line by senior cornerback Roger Cray, who returned it for a touchdown.

The very next offensive play for FIU, Bortenschlager coughed up the football again. The veteran was picked off by senior linebacker Eli Brown, which was also returned for six from the Panther’s 22-yard line.

“I was like, wow this is their last game on this field,” defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “It’s really cool to go out that way. I know all their teammates and their friends and obviously, everybody wanting to see that kind of stuff and It felt great.”

Both of the scoring turnovers put the Hilltoppers up 24-13, forcing FIU to replace Bortenschlager with freshman Stone Norton.

The senior leadership returned in the fourth quarter, with Walker leading a three-play, 59-yard drive all by himself to get into the endzone. The possession was followed by a four-yard touchdown run in the final minutes of regulation by Pigrome, which was his second rushing score of the game.  

The Panthers got one more touchdown before the clock hit zero, thanks to a one-yard run into the end zone by FIU’s third used quarterback of the day in redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins. The Hilltoppers set up in victory formation after that to ice the game at 38-21.

A morning game during the middle of the week is now the only thing that could be stopping WKU from going bowling for the second year in a row.

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