Hilltoppers blow 14-point lead, fall to Central Arkansas

WKU Hilltoppers running back Gaej Walker (5) runs the ball during the 35-28 loss to the Central Arkansas Bears in Houchens Smith Stadium on August 29, 2019. Walker scored two touchdowns during the game.

Alec Jessie

WKU came into its 2019 season opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Central Arkansas looking for redemption after blowing a 21-point lead to FCS adversary Maine in the 2018 home opener.

Instead, WKU blew a 14-point lead and allowed the Bears to defeat the Hilltoppers 35-28.

Redshirt junior quarterback Steven Duncan led WKU (0-1) offensively, passing for 304 yards to go with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. Redshirt junior running back Gaej Walker rushed for a career-high 153 yards and two touchdowns in his first game at a new position. Junior receiver Jacquez Sloan led the Hilltoppers in receiving yards with 74.

UCA (1-0) couldn’t run the ball, tallying just 20 yards on 29 carries. But the Bears gashed the Hilltoppers through the air — sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns, while sophomore receiver Lujuan Winningham caught eight passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns.

Walker reached 109 rushing yards late in the second quarter, which was the most rushing yards by a Hilltopper since Ace Wales ran for 243 yards against Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 20, 2016. His 68-yard touchdown run was also the longest rush by a WKU runner since Nicholas Norris’ 85-yard touchdown against Houston Baptist on Oct. 1, 2016.

Head coach Tyson Helton was very pleased with the production he got out of the redshirt junior back, who switched from defense to offense during the offseason.

“Thought it was really good,” Helton said postgame. “Thought he made a lot of good tough runs. He really stepped up.”

Walker credits the offensive line for opening up big holes for him to run through all night. 

“I give all the credit to the o-line,” Walker said postgame. “They did a great job blocking, so they set it up for me.”

DeAngelo Malone made his presence known on the Bears first possession with a couple tackles, including a tackle for loss on third down.

The Hilltoppers didn’t take long to strike on offense. Walker blew threw the Bears defensive line on the first play from scrimmage for a 68-yard touchdown run. WKU led 7-0 early in the first quarter.

Malone continued to dominate the Bear offensive line, notching a sack to end UCA’s second drive.

Duncan steadily moved the Hilltoppers down the field on their second drive. Lucky Jackson caught his first pass of the season, converting on third down. Duncan ended the drive with his first passing touchdown of the season to tight end Joshua Simon, giving WKU a 14-0 lead.

The WKU defense held strong again, forcing the second UCA three-and-out of the game. 

After a 12-yard punt, WKU took over with great field position on its third drive. The Bears’ defense finally made a play, forcing the first WKU turnover of the season. Duke Upshaw picked off Duncan to shift the momentum in UCA’s favor.

The Bears offense showed signs of life on their fourth drive. Freshman receiver Tyler Hudson reeled in a one-handed catch to get the Bears in WKU territory. Hudson got the Bears in the red zone later in the drive with another catch. The first quarter came to an end with the Bears facing a fourth-and-1 play at the 6-yard line.

The WKU defense stuffed the Bears fourth down attempt and took back over deep in its own territory. Redshirt junior receiver Jahcour Pearson gave the Hilltoppers some breathing room with a 16-yard reception. 

Jackson moved the chains with a 6-yard reception on third down. However, the WKU drive came to a halt on the very next play. Robert Rochell picked off Duncan, giving the Bears their second takeaway of the game.

Malone continued his dominance into the second quarter, adding another sack. UCA converted the third-and-long with a back shoulder fade route to Winningham for 30 yards. Winningham wasn’t done on the drive, however. Smith connected with Winningham for a 23-yard touchdown on fourth-and-2. The Bears were on the board and trailed 14-7 with nine minutes left in the half.

The Hilltoppers got back in an offensive groove the following drive. WKU went back to the ground game with Walker. The back churned out multiple first downs on the drive. Jackson added in a run of his to get the Hilltoppers inside the Bears’ 10-yard line. Duncan finished off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to put the Hilltoppers up 21-7 just before the half.

UCA continued its offensive success during its two-minute drill. Smith converted multiple long plays with his arm. Hudson got into the end zone with 26 seconds left in the half and brought the Bears within a score, but WKU maintained its touchdown lead.

WKU took a knee the following possession and took its 21-14 lead into halftime.

Duncan completed 11-of-16 passes for 116 yards with a touchdown and two picks in the first half. Walker gained 109 yard on 10 rushes. Pearson hauled in three receptions for 34 yards.

UCA’s Smith threw for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first half. Both Winningham and Hudson each found the end zone. The Bears struggled to run the ball, with just 15 yards on 16 rushes. 

WKU began the half backed up at its own 12-yard line. The Bears forced the first three-and-out of the game for WKU after Duncan had his pass batted at the line of scrimmage on third down. 

WKU returned the favor by getting the Bears off the field in three plays the following possession. 

Sloan moved the chains for the first time of the half with a big catch and run into UCA territory. Jakairi Moses converted a third-and-long to get the WKU offense back in the redzone later in the drive. WKU had a touchdown wiped off the board due to penalty, but punched the ball in the next play with another Walker rushing touchdown. WKU extended its lead back to 14, up 28-14.

WKU kept up the heat on defense during UCA’s second possession of the half. Juwuan Jones recorded his first sack of the season and the Hilltoppers held strong on third down to get the Bears off the field.

Tight end Kyle Fourtenbary got the Hilltoppers back in Bears’ territory after breaking tackles on a third down reception. The Bears got off the field later in the drive, however, after Duncan threw an incomplete pass on third down.

Senior running back Carlos Blackman took a reception in the flat inside the Hilltopper 25-yard line to get the Bear offense rolling again. UCA faced a third down at the end of the third quarter, but WKU took a 28-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

Smith connected with Winningham in the end zone again to get the Bears on the board in the second half. UCA was yet again within a score, down only 28-21.

Simon came up with a reception after the ball was tipped and ran all the way to the Bears 41-yard line to get WKU offense back on track. 

Pearson followed it up with a screen play that got WKU inside the Bears 30-yard line. WKU had its second touchdown of the game wiped out due to penalty during the drive. Freshman kicker Cory Munson missed his first field goal attempt of the season wide left from 32 yards out.

Winningham continued his torrid game with an 80-yard touchdown reception from Blackman on a trick play — his third touchdown of the game. With 10 minutes left in the game, the score was tied up at 28-28.

The Bears’ defense forced a WKU three-and-out and regained possession with a chance at its first lead of the game.

Junior running back Kierre Crossley gashed the WKU defense to begin the drive, getting the ball into its territory. Winningham took the ball to the 1-yard line on the following play after another reception.

Blackman punched the ball in the endzone on third-and-goal, giving UCA its first lead of the game at 35-28.

Pearson finally got the ball moving for WKU after a first down reception. However, the Bears’ defense held strong and got WKU off the field on fourth down. The WKU defense did its job and forced a Bears three-and-out to give the offense one more shot to tie the game with 2:42 left.

Sloan converted a very important third-and-7 to get the ball moving. Sloan followed it up with another first down catch on the next play. The Bears made one final stop on fourth-and-5, sealing the victory over WKU with :46 to play in the game.

Malone said the locker room is fine despite the disappointing loss, which saw the Bears score three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

“Everybody is good,” Malone said postgame. “We can’t let this one game define us. We just have to go to work tomorrow.”

Helton thinks no different about his football team after this loss.

“I don’t think one difference about our football team,” Helton said. “I think they’ll wake up tomorrow and be ready to go to work. I expect nothing less out of them and I know that’s how they’ll respond.”

WKU will be back in action on Sept. 7 at Florida International (0-1). FIU lost 42-14 at Tulane (1-0) on Thursday night. WKU’s game with FIU will be streamed live on ESPN+. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.

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