Cory Munson nets walk-off field goal, Hilltoppers claim 3-point victory in First Responder Bowl

WKU freshman kicker Cory Munson (center) celebrates with WKU athletic director Todd Stewart (left) and his teammates after nailing a game-winning 52-yard field goal during an untimed down at the end of regulation. WKU defeated Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl 23-20 in Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas.

Drake Kizer

The WKU football team (9-4, 6-2 C-USA) found a way to emerge victorious against Western Michigan (7-6, 5-3 MAC) in the First Responder Bowl on Monday, as freshman kicker Cory Munson used an untimed down at the end of the fourth quarter to convert a 52-yard field goal attempt that lifted the Hilltoppers to a 23-20 bowl win in Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas.

The win tripled the WKU football program’s win total from 2018, and it also matched the Hilltoppers’ combined win total from the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

“I will take that one,” head coach Tyson Helton said in a postgame release. “All of his others were wiped away. I just felt like he is a really talented kicker and if I just kept putting him out there in pressure situations that sometime he would come through. He stepped up big today. Something inside of me told me that when we got the penalty that he was going to go out there and knock it right down the middle and he did. He had a lot of confidence when we went out there and I am really proud of him today.”

Munson was 14-of-24 on field goals for the year coming into the bowl game, and he was 2-of-3 on field goal tries during the First Responder Bowl prior to his eventual game-winning kick.

The young kicker had never made a kick longer than 48 yards in his short time on the Hill, and he was 0 for 1 on field goal tries longer than 50 yards so far in his career.

But after the Broncos were flagged for having 12 men on the field on the last play of regulation, Munson squared up for the most important try of his short WKU career with no time left.

With all the odds stacked against him and the world watching on ESPN, Munson permanently added himself to Hilltopper lore by erasing his miss prior to halftime and netting a career-long kick to seal a WKU victory in the program’s first bowl appearance since the 2017 Cure Bowl.

“I like kicking longer ones,” Munson said in a postgame release. “It is something about it. I have more confidence kicking longer ones, so when I went out there I knew I was going to make it. As soon as I kicked it, I didn’t even have to look up to see if I made it or not. I don’t know if I can explain it, but as soon as it left my foot I knew it was in. It is all a blur. I got tackled. It was crazy out there.”

Graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey completed 35-of-51 passes for 358 yards, passing for two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.

Redshirt senior receiver Lucky Jackson caught 17 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, redshirt junior running back Gaej Walker ran for 93 yards on his 15 carries and Munson was 3 for 4 on his field goal attempts throughout the game.

Jackson finished his WKU career in style, taking home First Responder Bowl MVP honors and etching his name in the record books by breaking his own program record for receptions in a game and tying for fifth in bowl history for catches in a game.

Senior quarterback Jon Wassink completed 19-of-36 passes for 193 yards for the Broncos, passing for one touchdown and one interception.

WMU was led on the ground by senior running back LeVante Bellamy, as he rushed 18 times for 60 yards. Freshman receiver Skyy Moore led the Broncos in receiving with four receptions for 68 yards and no touchdowns.

WKU won the opening coin toss, elected to defer and WMU received the opening kickoff.

The Broncos started their first possession on the WMU 36 after fifth year wide receiver Keith Mixon Jr. took the football out of the end zone and scampered upfield for a solid return.

Bellamy rushed for a combined six yards on first and second down, and Wassink picked up a first down when he found senior tight end Giovanni Ricci for a 7-yard gain to the WKU 49.

The Bronco offense stalled from there, and WMU was forced to punt shortly after junior guard Mike Caliendo was called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.

WKU took over for its opening drive at its own 21, and Jackson picked up a 12-yard reception for a first down on the Hilltoppers’ first play from scrimmage.

The WKU drive took a turn for the worst on a third-and-9 play soon after, as senior linebacker Alex Grace picked off Storey at the WMU 31-yard line.

The Broncos went straight to work, picking up a pair of early first downs on the ground using the legs of senior running back Davon Tucker. WMU kept using the ground game to its advantage, this time picking up a first down on a 3-yard rush by freshman running back Sean Tyler.

Wassink pushed WMU even further down the field, moving the Broncos to the WKU 17-yard line on a 13-yard pitch to Moore.

But WMU wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone, instead picking up a 3-0 lead at the 4:17 mark on a 30-yard field goal from junior kicker Thiago Kapps.

WKU started its second drive at the 35-yard line after the ensuing WMU kickoff went out of bounds. The Hilltoppers weren’t able to get anything going, posting a quick three-and-out and kicking the ball back to the WMU offense, which took over at its own 30-yard line.

The Broncos kept the three-and-out train rolling, posting one of their own and giving the ball back to WKU at its own 7 after a 57 yard punt from sophomore punter Nick Mihalic.

Storey used a familiar formula to find another first down, hitting Jackson for a 10-yard gain on the first play of a drive that stretched into the second quarter. Storey and Walker picked up two first downs on the ground and extended the WKU drive across midfield.

Jackson took over the game from there, picking up a first down on an 8-yard reception and another first down on a 20-yard catch soon after.

The Hilltoppers kept passing, and Storey connected with redshirt junior receiver Jahcour Pearson for a 17-yard touchdown reception on the very next play and gave WKU a 7-3 lead with 10:54 left in the second quarter.

WMU started its next drive at its own 12, but Tucker picked up an early first down to the WMU 24-yard line. The Bronco possession stalled shortly thereafter, and WMU was forced to punt.

Although Mihalic sent the ball sailing, the Broncos maintained possession after redshirt freshman defensive back Beanie Bishop was called for roughing the kicker on the punt.

Bellamy picked up a single yard on the extra possession, but WMU punted once again after an errant throw by Wassink on a third-and-9 play at the WMU 39-yard line.

Storey kept the ball rolling after the Hilltoppers regained possession, hitting freshman tight end Joshua Simon across the middle for a 16-yard gain to the WKU 48-yard line.

Pearson snagged an 11-yard reception to the WMU 37, and junior receiver Jacquez Sloan followed the chunk play up with a 21-yard catch to the WMU 16.

The Hilltoppers kept pushing, but eventually had to settle for a 26-yard field goal attempt from Munson. The freshman was successful, putting WKU up 10-3 with 2:22 left before halftime.

WMU seemed poised to make a run at scoring points before the first half elapsed, as Moore picked up a quick 15-yard reception to the WMU 49. But junior linebacker Kyle Bailey had other plans, intercepting Wassink at the WKU 41 on a first-and-10 play.

WKU then moved into hurry-up mode, and the Hilltoppers picked up first downs of 11 and 19 yards, respectively, shortly after Helton asked for a timeout with 1:40 left in the first half.

Following another WKU timeout with 1:14 remaining in the first half, fifth year cornerback Kareem Ali intercepted Storey at the WMU 12-yard line and ran the interception back 88 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 10-10 with 59 seconds left before halftime.

Undeterred by the unfavorable result of its last drive, the WKU offense came out firing once again and moved all the way down to the WMU 11-yard line after starting on its own 35.

Storey spiked the ball after Simon snagged a 24-yard reception, setting up a 29-yard field goal attempt from Munson just before the halftime break. Munson missed the kick wide right, and the Hilltoppers went into halftime knotted with the Broncos in a 10-10 tie.

WKU posted a mostly dominant second quarter by mounting two consecutive scoring drives that lasted 5:28 and 5:25 of clock time, respectively. But the Hilltoppers made some detrimental mistakes and ended up costing themselves a shot at taking complete control of the contest.

Storey was 21-of-28 for 216 yards, a touchdown and two picks at halftime, while Walker picked up 44 yards on seven tries. Jackson had 10 grabs for 92 yards and helped the Hilltoppers ourgain the Broncos 279-105 in total yards in the opening half of action.

WKU received the second-half kickoff after winning the opening toss and electing to defer.

The Hilltoppers weren’t able to take advantage of a 5-yard penalty on the WMU defense, as Storey was sacked for a loss of seven yards by senior defensive end Antonio Balabani and WKU was forced to punt the ball away on its first possession of the third quarter.

Wassink came out firing on a drive that started at the WMU 10 after an illegal block penalty, hitting Moore for a 32-yard connection to the WMU 42-yard line.

Bellamy kept the WMU drive alive with a 7-yard rush to the WKU 42, and Wassink followed it up with a 13-yard rush to the WKU 29-yard line.

Moore threw an incomplete pass to Wassink on a WR pass play, but redshirt sophomore defensive end Juwuan Jones was flagged for a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.

The Bronco offense was gifted a first-and-10 play at the WKU 14-yard line, and after two straight rushes, Wassink found redshirt freshman receiver DaShon Bussell for a 6-yard touchdown catch that put the Broncos ahead 17-10 with 8:18 left in the third quarter.

Walker rushed for a gain of 39 yards to the WKU 49-yard line on the first play of the Hilltoppers’ ensuing possession, and Jackson picked up another first down on a 10-yard reception.

Storey couldn’t pick up a rushing first down on a third-and-10 play at the WMU 39, and WMU took over at its own 11-yard line after junior John Haggerty punted the football 44 yards.

The WKU defense came up with a massive stop, forcing the WMU offense into a three-and-out and handing the Hilltoppers the ball back at their own 34-yard line.

Storey completed two consecutive passes to Jackson, moving WKU into good position for a fourth-down conversion on a fourth-and-1 rushing play at the WKU 43-yard line.

Officials determined after a lengthy review that Storey didn’t actually pick up the first down, and the Hilltoppers were forced to give WMU the ball back at the WKU 43. The Broncos didn’t cash in, and WKU soon had the ball back at its 20 after the punt bounced into the end zone.

Storey picked up 11 yards on a QB run play, and junior linebacker Treshaun Hayward tacked 15 more yards onto the rush by tackling Storey out of bounds on the WKU sideline.

The Hilltopper possession stretched into the fourth quarter, and it was extended even further after sophomore cornerback Patrick Lupro was flagged for pass interference.

WKU then had a first-and-10 play at the WMU 20-yard line, and the Hilltoppers picked up another first down to the WMU 8 on a 4-yard grab by Pearson.

After Helton called a timeout with 11:25 remaining in the fourth period, Storey found Jackson for a 5-yard touchdown that tied the game at 17-17 with 10:40 left to play in the contest.

Wassink found freshman wide receiver Corey Crooms for a 20-yard gain early in the next WMU drive, and Bellamy soon added two more first downs for the Broncos on the ground.

An 8-yard completion to Tyler moved WMU to the WKU 4-yard line, but the Broncos couldn’t convert. WMU was forced to settle for a 20-yard field goal attempt, which Kapps knocked in to give the Broncos a 20-17 lead over WKU with 4:58 left in the contest.

Storey started the ensuing Hilltopper drive off looking for a connection with Simon, eventually finding the star freshman on a 30-yard completion to the WMU 38-yard line.

WKU asked for a timeout with 4:06 to play, and the Hilltoppers dialed up a solid 11-yard completion to Jackson and a 14-yard connection with Simon to the WMU 14.

Storey wasn’t able to find Jackson for the 18th time, and WKU was again forced to ask Munson for a field goal attempt. Munson’s kick was good from 31 yards out, and the freshman kicker knotted the game once again at 20-20 with 1:36 left in regulation.

WMU came out looking to throw the ball, and Wassink was successful early on, finding both Ricci and Bussell for first downs to move the Broncos to the WKU 37-yard line.

WMU took all three of its timeouts with 1:22 or less on the game clock, setting up a crucial fourth-and-3 play at the WKU 30-yard line. Redshirt senior cornerback Ta’Corian Darden broke up a pass intended for Ricci, and the Hilltoppers regained possession with 27 seconds left.

Starting at its own 30-yard line, the WKU offense picked up one first down to the WKU 41-yard line before gaining another to the WMU 39-yard line.

After WKU called for a timeout with three seconds left in regulation, WMU appeared to have 12 men on the field. A confusing sequence ensued, and after WMU was officially flagged for having 12 men on the field, WKU was granted an untimed down to cap a wild regulation period.

The Hilltoppers used their untimed down to attempt a 52-yard field goal for the win, and Munson came through with the game on the line — he netted a game-winning try, granting WKU a massive bowl victory with no time left on the clock in regulation.

Following the win, WKU improved to 4-2 in bowl games as a Football Bowl Subdivision member and capped a historic turnaround with a four-game winning streak to end the 2019 season.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include postgame comments from WKU head coach Tyson Helton and freshman kicker Cory Munson, which were obtained from the First Responder Bowl following the publication of this story.

Sports Editor Drake Kizer can be reached at [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.