Hilltoppers snatch first win of season at FIU

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 won its first game of the 2019 season on Saturday night, defeating Florida International 20-14 on the road at Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami.

The Hilltoppers (1-1, 1-0 C-USA) won their first Conference USA matchup of the season, while FIU (0-2, 0-1 C-USA) stayed winless in 2019.

Head coach Tyson Helton dedicated his first career victory to WKU President Timothy Caboni, whose father died on Aug. 31.

President [Tim] Caboni lost his father this past week and our condolences to him, and this one’s for him as well,” Helton said in a postgame release. “I know he wanted to get this one and I want to make sure that he knows it. That’s a happy football team in there and we want to give this win to him.”

Redshirt junior Steven Duncan had another up-and-down performance with 241 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions on 19-of-33 passing.

Senior Lucky Jackson racked up 93 yards on six receptions. Redshirt junior Kyle Fourtenbary gained 74 yards on five receptions. Redshirt junior Gaej Walker rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries for WKU.

Junior Kyle Bailey and redshirt junior Devon Key led the WKU defense by combining for 24 total tackles, which included eight solo tackles between the two.

Redshirt senior James Morgan and redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins mixed in at quarterback for FIU. Morgan completed only 3-of-11 passes for 25 yards. Wiggins attempted just six passes, but was a threat on the ground with 25 yards on 15 carries. 

Napoleon Maxwell, D’Vonte Price and Anthony Jones all carried the rock for the Panthers. Maxwell led the way with 48 yards, Jones had 43 yards and Price gained 21 yards. 

Safeties Richard Dames and Dorian Hall both picked off passes for the FIU defense.

The Hilltopper offense flamed out on their first possession, as WKU went three-and-out. The Panther offense took the field with good field position, starting at the 50-yard line.

FIU moved the ball on its first position, but came away with no points. Maxwell converted a third-and-3 play and Austin Maloney caught a 12-yard pass from James Morgan to move the sticks. The Hilltopper defense held strong and forced a fourth down, which led to a missed 39-yard field goal from FIU kicker Jose Borregales.

WKU came out firing on the next possession to get on the board — Duncan completed back-to-back passes to Jackson and Fourtenbary for 48 and 20 yards, respectively. 

Arkansas transfer Ty Storey got his first snap of the season late in the eventual scoring drive, rushing for no gain on a first-and-goal play at the 8-yard line. On the very next snap, Duncan connected with Jahcour Pearson for an eight-yard touchdown to put WKU up 7-0.

Helton gambled on the ensuing kickoff and it paid off — freshman kicker Cory Munson executed an onside kick for WKU and the Hilltoppers ended up with the ball. The WKU offense was then back on the field at its own 40-yard line.

WKU continued to move the ball on its second possession. Pearson got the drive going with an 11-yard reception. Walker ran the ball for 14 yards all the way down to FIU 33-yard line. 

The Hilltopper offense was rolling and seemed poised to score once again, but ended up making a costly mistake. Duncan threw an off-target pass that Dames intercepted and returned for an 80-yard touchdown, which allowed FIU to even the score at 7-7 in the first.

WKU looked to get back on track during its following possession. Fourtenbary converted a third down with a 4-yard reception, but the WKU offense bottomed out after that. Duncan scrambled on third down but came up three yards short. 

FIU took over at its own 27-yard line after the punt, but the WKU defense forced a fourth down after three plays. Morgan executed a quarterback sneak for a first down on a fourth-and-1 play, but just moments later FIU faced a third-and-7 play at the end of the first quarter.

The WKU defense held strong and got off the field after an FIU incompletion to begin the second frame. The Hilltoppers then took over at their own 9-yard line.

Fourtenbary continued his solid outing with another catch for a first down. Jackson caught a 13-yard pass on the next play to get WKU close to midfield. After back-to-back incomplete passes, Duncan could not convert a third-and-long play, which caused WKU to punt again.

FUI got nothing going in its next drive, failing to convert a third-and-8 play deep in its own territory. WKU started on its own 30-yard line after the FIU punt. 

WKU returned the favor with another punt before the Panthers’ subsequent drive also sputtered. Morgan fumbled the snap on second down for FIU, which resulted in the sixth straight punt between the two schools at that point in the contest.

Clayton Bush muffed the ensuing punt, but WKU got the ball back and started its next possession at its own 41-yard line.

WKU finally got the ball moving and into Panther territory on its next drive, a nine-play, 59-yard drive that took 3:28 off the clock late in the second quarter.

Quin Jernighan caught his first pass of the season during the drive, a 26-yard snag for a first down. Later in the drive, Jacquez Sloan made a 14-yard catch that put WKU on the FIU 2-yard line. Walker punched the ball in from there to put WKU up 14-7 with 3:53 left to play in the half.

Wiggins replaced Morgan at the quarterback position for FIU on its next drive due to an injury. Wiggins netted just eight yards on three attempts in relief of the team’s starter and the Panthers were forced to punt again.

WKU took over deep in its own territory on the next possession. Fourtenbary caught another pass for a first down, but WKU’s offensive stalled again.

FIU took over with 49 seconds left in the half and got the run game going before the break. 

Wiggins and Jones ran the Panthers into WKU territory with 27 seconds left on the clock, but the WKU defense held up and turned the Panthers over on downs. 

WKU then took a knee with four ticks left and took its 14-7 lead into halftime.

The WKU defense dominated the first half, allowing no points and holding FIU to just 53 total yards of offense.

Morgan threw for 25 yards on 3-of-9 passing before getting replaced. Jones ran for 23 yards on five attempts, while Maxwell gained 19 yards on four attempts. Dames scored the only points for FIU on his 80-yard interception return for a score.

Duncan had a solid first half outside of the turnover with 181 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 13-of-24 passing.

Jackson led WKU in receiving at the half with 71 yards on four receptions. Fourtenbary also had four receptions and gained 46 yards. Walker continued his streak of good running with 62 yards on 13 attempts and a touchdown.

FIU received the ball to open the second half and looked to get anything going on offense, but more of the same ensued — FIU went three-and-out and punted the ball away after 1:14.

Jackson continued his receiving success with a 13-yard reception out of the gate for WKU. Later in the drive, Duncan connected with Fourtenbary for 28 yards to get WKU deep in FIU territory.

Walker ran all the way to the 6-yard line and WKU had a first-and-goal play, but the Hilltopper drive stalled out in the red zone. Munson was called into action by Helton, and the freshman kicker responded by netting his first career field goal from 19 yards out.

Munson’s leg put WKU up 17-7 with 8:39 left to play in the third quarter of action.

FIU finally got its offense in gear on the Panthers’ second possession of the half. Wiggins connected with Maurice Alexander for a 40-yard gain on a third-and-9 play. Just two snaps later, Maxwell ran 15 yards into the endzone to put FIU back within three points at 17-14.

WKU’s following possession ended immediately — safety Hall picked off Duncan on a deep ball to continue the Panthers’ wave of positive momentum. 

But the WKU defense stood strong after Duncan’s second turnover, as Juwuan Jones sacked Wiggins on third down for a loss of eight to get the defense off the field yet again.

The Hilltopper offense went nowhere the following possession. Duncan lost 13 yards on a third-and-7 play and fumbled in the process, which meant WKU had to punt again even after Duncan managed to recover his own fumble. 

FIU was pinned deep in its own territory after WKU punter John Haggerty booted the football 54 yards on a fourth-and-21 play at the WKU 35-yard line.

WKU’s defense returned the favor by forcing yet another three-and-out by the Panthers, and a short punt gave the Hilltopper offense great field position on the ensuing drive.

WKU’s offense took the field again late in the third quarter, handing the ball to Walker for a three-yard gain to end the frame. WKU took its 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

Walker continued making his presence felt, tallying a big third down conversion on a 13-yard rush. After a penalty backed up the offense, WKU settled for its second field goal of the game. 

Munson came on and knocked in his second career field goal, a 44-yarder to put WKU up 20-14 early in the fourth quarter.

The Panther offense took the field again in dire need of points, and the trio of Price, Maxwell and Jones picked up multiple first downs on the final drive for FIU.

Jones picked up a massive first down on a fourth-and-1 play with a five yard rush. A WKU penalty moved the ball all the way up to the WKU 24-yard line. Moments later, a pass interference call on Dionté Ruffin gave FIU another first down inside the WKU 20-yard line.

FIU converted another big fourth down on an 8-yard rush by Wiggins. FIU then had a first-and-goal play on the WKU 2-yard line, but nearly lost possession after Wiggins ran for a loss of eight yards and fumbled in the process. 

Wiggins recovered his own fumble, but FIU called for a timeout. Morgan then returned to the field on a third-and-16 play at the WKU 16-yard line, but he threw an incomplete pass. 

The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-9 with 4:09 left to play, but Antwon Kincade broke up a pass intended for Tony Gaiter IV. The goal-line stand by WKU ensured that FIU would tally zero points on a drive that lasted 18 plays and went for 60 yards.

The WKU offense took the field looking to run out the remaining time on the game clock, and the Hilltoppers did just that. Walker picked up a big first down on a third-and-1 play that allowed WKU to end the game with a tight 20-14 victory on the road.

WKU will look to string together back-to-back wins next weekend, as the Hilltoppers will meet Louisville on Sept. 14 at 3 p.m. The neutral site game will be played at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.

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