WKU defense ignites Hilltoppers in 4th FBS bowl win

Western Kentucky’s defensive end DeAngelo Malone tackles Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassick after Wassick kept the ball on an option play. Western Kentucky defeated Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl 23-20 at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas

Elliott Wells

The WKU football team (9-4, 6-2 C-USA) closed its season on the winning side and tripled its win total from a season ago in the First Responder Bowl on Monday, picking up a 23-20 victory over Mid-American Conference opponent Western Michigan (7-6, 5-3 MAC) in Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas thanks to a solid effort on the defensive side of the ball.

Although freshman kicker Cory Munson’s game-winner from 52 yards away will be how most Hilltopper fans remember the First Responder Bowl in years to come, the WKU defense posted perhaps its most impressive performance of the 2019 season against WMU.

“They are very good on defense,” WMU head coach Tim Lester said in a postgame release. “They are No. 1 in their league for a reason and they do a good job loading up the box. The safeties do a good job in coming down and tackling. They came down a few times and got us by the shoestrings. We tried to stay patient. We never quite hit a big one. But we almost did a few times there late.”

WKU relied heavily on its defense down the stretch, and the Hilltoppers successfully slowed down a Bronco offense that came into the contest scoring 34.8 points per game.

WKU’s win against the Broncos to close out the 2019 season was the program’s first victory in a bowl game since the Hilltoppers defeated Memphis 51-31 in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl, and it also marked the program’s fourth bowl win since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2009.

The Hilltoppers entered their bowl game ranking 21st in scoring defense and allowing just 20.08 points per game, which helped WKU yield its lowest point total in an FBS bowl game, topping the 24-point scoring output Central Michigan posted in the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

The WKU defense was pushed by its tenacious mentality throughout the contest, becoming just the third team all year to force WMU to 20 points or less in a single game.

WKU also limited WMU to 307 yards of total offense after the offensive-minded Broncos came into the contest boasting an average of 457.3 yards per game.

WKU forced the high-paced Bronco offense to punt the ball on its opening drive, but the Broncos’ second drive of the game started on the 31-yard line after senior linebacker Alex Grace intercepted graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey’s errant throw. 

WMU used its momentum from Storey’s pick to drive the ball down the field, stringing together four first downs for 57 yards of total offense and draining 6:11 of the game clock before junior kicker Thiago Kapps booted in a 30-yard field goal to give WMU a 3-0 lead at the 4:17 mark.

Storey and the WKU offense continued to struggle moving the ball in the first quarter, as the Hilltoppers were then forced into a three-and-out on their second drive of the game.

With the WKU offense only running 10 plays for a total of 38 yards and using a minimal 3:58 of clock time across its first two possessions, WMU took complete control of the pace during the first quarter and possessed the football for 11:02 of clock time.

After Kapps’ early field goal, the Bronco offense became very stagnant, driving the ball 33 yards across two drives that lasted 4:46 in total and resulted in a pair of punts.

Part of WKU’s defensive success came from limiting 2019 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year LeVante Bellamy to just 60 rushing yards on 18 carries.

“They do a great job,” senior quarterback Jon Wassink said in a postgame release. “They’re a really good defense. They took away some of our stuff we normally like to run and we probably didn’t have quite as many big plays in the run game, but ultimately it came down to us not executing. Me tripping over myself, various third downs I don’t think we were very good. We didn’t convert a lot and it came down to us not doing the little things right.”

The First Responder Bowl saw Bellamy post his lowest amount of rushing yards in a game since the Doak Walker Award semifinalist finished with only 44 rushing yards in WMU’s 51-17 blowout loss on the road at then-No. 19 Michigan State on Sept. 7.

The senior running back came into his final college game leading the country with 23 rushing touchdowns. He’s also picked up 1,412 yards across the field, helping him rank 10th nationally across all rushers.

But WKU’s ferocious defense quieted Bellamy on an afternoon where the 5-foot-9-inch running back failed to score a touchdown for just the second time this season. Bellamy’s other non-touchdown game also came against the Spartans.

Junior linebacker Kyle Bailey also boosted the WKU defense late in the second half by picking off Wassink at the 1:53 mark.

Despite the pick, WKU gave up its lone touchdown in the first half when Storey threw an 88-yard pick-six on the ensuing possession after Bailey’s forced turnover.

Storey’s late miscue put the Hilltoppers in a 10-10 tie at the halftime break, but the WKU defense only allowed 42 total yards of offense in the second quarter.

The momentum swing allowed the Broncos to drive the ball 75 yards on their opening drive of the second half and claim a 17-10 lead at the 8:18 mark. 

Wassink’s 6-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver DaShon Bussell ended up being WMU’s only offensive touchdown of the afternoon. 

WKU held on and prevailed in the end with Munson’s game-winning kick, but not before the Hilltopper defense stood tall on the Broncos’ last offensive possession.

WMU turned the ball over on downs at the WKU 30-yard line with 27 seconds remaining, giving the Hilltoppers a breath of fresh air that allowed the WKU offense to drive the ball down the field for their historical last drive of the 2019 season. 

The Hilltopper defense showed up to play once again, helping WKU become just the third Conference USA member school to reach victory during the 2019-20 bowl season.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include postgame comments from WMU head coach Tim Lester and senior quarterback Jon Wassink, which were obtained from the First Responder Bowl following the publication of this story.

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.