Back in line: Hilltoppers bounce back with road conference win

WKU tight end Kyle Fourtenbary (42) rushes the ball past FIU linebacker Josh Powell (48) in the Hilltoppers’ 20-14 win at Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami, Fla. on September 7, 2019.

Alec Jessie

The WKU football team got back on track last weekend with its first Conference USA win of the season, as the Hilltoppers (1-1, 1-0 C-USA) traveled south to Miami and took down Florida International (0-2, 0-1 C-USA) in a 20-14 defensive struggle.

WKU showed a lot of improvement defensively, top options emerged on the offensive side of the football, and with two games in the books, it appears first-year head coach Tyson Helton is in the process of carving out a hard-working identity for his team.

Helton said he was very pleased with the resilience his team showed during its first road test.

“It’s a huge win for our program tonight,” Helton said in a postgame release. “We talked about it all week — responding to adversity. Can’t be more proud of our football team, especially on defense. Drive after drive they responded and came through, so that was great to see.

“The whole team battled, all three phases they battled hard. Obviously, it’s not perfect, there’s a lot we have to clean up, but winning brings motivation and it brings confidence. That was a big win for us tonight. Now, it’s one win, and we have to build on it. But it was a good win for us tonight.”

Offensively, it’s clear who the main contributors for WKU will be going forward.

Redshirt junior Gaej Walker has transitioned seamlessly from defensive back to running back, taking control of the backfield. After a 153-yard, two-touchdown performance, Helton used Walker in a workhorse fashion against FIU. Walker ran for 100 yards on 27 carries and found the endzone once again, while no other running back ran the football once for WKU.

A hierarchy also emerged in the passing game. After not much involvement against Central Arkansas, senior receiver Lucky Jackson made his presence known against FIU — he led the team with six receptions for 93 yards, including a 48-yard catch on a flea-flicker play.

Redshirt junior tight end Kyle Fourtenbary also made a much bigger impact after a quiet first week, snagging five passes for 74 yards against the Panthers. Redshirt junior Jahcour Pearson stayed involved as well, tallying four receptions and a touchdown catch for the Hilltoppers.

Jackson was impressed with the offensive execution through the air.

“We feel good about the offense [Saturday],” Jackson said in a release. “The ball went up in the air and guys made plays, played great for the quarterback. Shout out to the O-line because without them it wouldn’t be possible just because protecting the quarterback, protecting the running back, making this thing run smooth. It was great for the offense in conference.”

Even with the running back and receiving spots seemingly established for the time being, the quarterback position is still a bit of a question mark two weeks into the season.

Redshirt junior Steven Duncan has produced mixed results in his first two starts. Duncan has thrown for 545 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 62.5% of his passes. The signal caller has shown flashes of his arm talent and also added a rushing touchdown against UCA, but Duncan has struggled with turnovers so far.

To make matters more interesting, Arkansas transfer Ty Storey took his first snap as a Hilltopper against FIU. Although it was a single rushing attempt that went for no gain, the fact Helton gave the backup a snap means Storey will factor into the offense going forward and could end up as the starter in future games if Duncan doesn’t take better care of the football.

Defensively, WKU’s performance against FIU was a night-and-day difference compared to some of the defensive struggles the Hilltoppers faced against UCA.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White said prior to the victory his unit would make major strides between Week 1 and Week 2, and that notion rang true against the Panthers.

“People always say your biggest improvement is between game one and game two,” White said last week. “I think they’re working hard. We’re always trying to get better.”

The Hilltopper rush defense stayed stout, allowing only 3.3 yards per carry, but the WKU pass defense made huge strides in its second outing.

After getting torched for 404 passing yards against UCA, the WKU secondary shut down the Panthers’ passing attack — redshirt senior James Morgan and redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins combined for just 66 yards on 5-of-18 passing.

Most importantly, the defense sealed the victory with a goal-line stand. WKU forced a turnover on downs late in the game after FIU had a first-and-goal play on the WKU 2-yard line.

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Juwuan Jones said finishing the game was paramount heading into the game.

“We just had to persevere,” Jones said in a release. “Coach White, Coach Helton, the whole staff has just been working on finishing, that’s something we’ve been working on. Week one we didn’t finish in the fourth quarter, but this one we finished in the fourth quarter. This one, we knew our tasks, we knew our duties and completed them to the fullest of our abilities.”

Helton acknowledged the defense postgame and said he was very proud of the unit’s effort.

“My hats off to the defensive staff and players,” Helton said in a release. “I think they came out tonight and they had something to prove. They felt bad about last week — although it was a total team loss, it wasn’t on the defense because they did a lot of really good things last week — but they came out and dominated tonight. That’s huge for them, it’s a big confidence boost.”

WKU will look to continue its defensive improvement against Louisville (1-1) on Saturday. The Cardinals were blown out by Notre Dame 35-17 two weeks ago but defeated Eastern Kentucky 42-0 last weekend. WKU and Louisville last met a season ago — a 20-17 win for Louisville.

Kickoff for this year’s neutral-site contest, which will be played at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, is slated for 3 p.m. on Saturday. WKU students with an active and valid student ID will be admitted into the game for free, according to a release.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.