Hilltoppers break through with first win of season

Steven Duncan throws a pass in WKU’s game against Ball State on Saturday. The Hilltopper quarterback had 94 passing yards and 55 rushing yards in the 28-20 win. 

Matt Stahl

After a disappointing 0-3 start to the season, WKU finally came away with a close 28-20 win at Ball State.

WKU had another week of productive rushing in the win. The Hilltoppers had their first run of 20+ yards since the Boca Raton Bowl in 2016, and their 192 yards on the ground were the most under head coach Mike Sanford. 

After the game, Sanford spoke of how good it was to get the first win after the early season struggle.

“The game of football, it really owes you nothing,” Sanford said. “You can give it everything you got, you can work until midnight, two in the morning, you can put together a good game plan, you can go out and put your best effort as a player, you can dominate your individual matchup, but the game of football, just like life, it owes you nothing.”

After winning the coin toss and electing to receive, WKU took the ball into BSU territory before redshirt freshman Davis Shanley, who was making his first career start at quarterback, was tackled for a 4-yard loss on a second and 1. Shanley then missed redshirt sophomore tight end Kyle Fourtenbary to force a fourth down and a Hilltopper punt.

BSU took over and drove 80 yards down the field on 13 plays to open the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Malik Dunner.

After several back-and-forth punts, the Hilltoppers finally mounted a drive midway through the second quarter, anchored by a 41-yard completion from Shanley to junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson. Four plays later, freshman Gino Appleberry dove in from the 1 to score the first touchdown of his career, as well as the first touchdown by a WKU running back this season.

BSU appeared to be stopped on the next drive, facing a third and 25 before sophomore corner Dionte Ruffin committed a pass interference penalty to give the Cardinals the first down. BSU took advantage of the opportunity, adding a 43-yard field goal to give them a 10-7 lead with 1:34 remaining in the half.

After the half, BSU took the ball and drove it all the way down the field, aided by a conversion on the ground by redshirt junior quarterback Riley Neal on a third and 20 to extend the drive. The Hilltoppers were able to hold the Cardinals to another field goal to make the score 13-7.

Shanley was replaced at the start of the second half by redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan after Shanley suffered an injury. Duncan led the Hilltoppers on a touchdown drive to take a 14-13 lead. The drive was anchored by his own 27-yard run, which was the first rush over 20 yards in the Mike Sanford era (519 attempts). Duncan ended the drive with his first career touchdown pass, a 3-yard pitch to senior tight end Mik’Quan Deane to give WKU a 14-13 lead.

“Me and Steven’s got this weird connection,” Deane said. “He’s always looking for me, I’m always looking for him so it felt good just to get that connection, get those touchdowns just to put us up.”

BSU proved difficult to tackle in the fourth quarter, as the Cardinals stayed on their feet to put together a scoring drive. Neal capped it off with a 6-yard pass to senior wide receiver Corey Lacanaria to make the score 20-14 in favor of the Cardinals.

Duncan got the ball back in his hands and led WKU back down the field. The Hilltoppers started at their own 25 and capped off an 11-play drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Duncan to Deane to give WKU a one-point lead.

After the WKU defense forced a Cardinal three-and-out, its offense started again at its own 30. Led by redshirt freshman running back Joshua Samuel, who finished the game with 93 yards, the Hilltoppers drove 70 yards in 3:09, ending with a 5-yard touchdown by Samuel to give themselves a 28-20 lead with 59 seconds left.

“Without them it wouldn’t happen,” Samuel said of his offensive line. “Coach Woods is always on them each and every day about getting better and that’s what we did and it showed in the fourth quarter when it mattered.”

The Cardinals gave the Hilltoppers a scare, throwing several Hail Mary passes to end the game, but in the end WKU came away with the win.

WKU (1-3) will be back in action at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Marshall.

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