Hilltoppers concede third go-ahead touchdown in fourth quarter

Mik’Quan Deane (85) turns the ball up field for WKU against Old Dominion at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 20 in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers lost to ODU 37-34 

Matt Stahl

Prior to the bizarre series of events that led to WKU’s 37-34 loss against Old Dominion Saturday, the Hilltopper defense gave up a 79-yard touchdown drive in the final 1:32 of the game.

It was the fourth three-point loss of the season for WKU, and the Hilltoppers have seen a trend of allowing big drives late in games. The Hilltoppers have conceded a fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown drive of 75 yards or more in three of the team’s six losses this year.

The Hilltoppers again held a late lead in Week 7, as a touchdown run by redshirt freshman Gino Appleberry gave WKU a seven-point lead with 1:37 left. But conceding a 79-yard touchdown drive set the Hilltoppers up for heartbreak.

“We went back down there and put together a four-minute drive as an offense and ran behind our offensive line, ate up an ungodly amount of clock and put ourselves in position to win a football game,” head coach Mike Sanford said. “We’ve got to win a game.”

Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Juwuan Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, gave credit to ODU quarterback Blake LaRussa for the touchdown drive.

“I guess we didn’t get enough pressure on the quarterback,” Jones said. “He was making them throws, he was making his throws. I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. He was making them throws. I don’t even know what to say, but we’ve got to get more pressure on the quarterback in those type of situations.”

The ODU loss isn’t the first time this season that the WKU defense has folded in a key moment. With four losses coming by three points or fewer, WKU could be 5-2 with a win over Power 5 opponent Louisville. But the Hilltoppers haven’t been able to close out games on the defensive side of the ball, and instead find themselves at 1-6 (0-3 C-USA).

In Week 3, the Hilltoppers gave up an eight-play, 75-yard fourth quarter drive that resulted in a Louisville touchdown and led to a 20-17 loss for WKU. In Week 5, the Hilltoppers allowed Marshall to go 98 yards on seven plays and score a go-ahead touchdown with 1:44 left in the game, which led to another 20-17 loss for the Hilltoppers.

The eight-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in the final 1:32 against ODU on Saturday was the third time in five games that WKU conceded an eventual game-winning touchdown drive.

The loss came in spite of a successful offensive night for WKU, as the Hilltoppers put up 207 rushing yards. Freshman Gino Appleberry got the first run over 20 yards by a Hilltopper running back in the Mike Sanford era. He also posted a career high in rushing yards with 80.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Davis Shanley also bounced back from his struggles against Charlotte last week. Shanley completed 24-of-31 pass attempts for 257 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite his positive performance, Shanley was still crushed after the game.

“We’re all taking this very personally,” Shanley said. “I think me, myself, I’m taking it a bit more personally than everybody else because I feel like I could have done better out there, you know, I could have put us in a situation where we didn’t need any of that to happen.”

WKU will host Florida International (5-2, 3-0 C-USA) for the Homecoming game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The Hilltoppers will be looking for their first conference win again, as they’re currently the only winless team in conference play.

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.