WKU defense carries Hilltoppers to another ugly victory

WKU quarterback Mike White (14) throws a pass during WKU’s game vs Ball State on September 23, 2017 in L.T. Smith Stadium.

Tyler Eaton

Coming into a conference tilt with the winless University of Texas-El Paso, many thought we would finally see the WKU offense we’d come to be familiar with over the past few years.

The opposite was true once more, as it was again the WKU defense carrying the load as the Hilltoppers moved to 3-2 (1-1 in Conference USA play) in a 15-14 win in El Paso yesterday.

UTEP (0-6, 0-2) limited the WKU offense to only 282 yards of total offense. Hilltopper quarterback Mike White finished the game 24-of-37 passing for 208 yards, averaging a mere 5.6 yards per attempt.

This was still better than the 2.2 yards the Hilltoppers averaged per carry, racking up only 74 yards on the ground as a team.

White accounted for both WKU touchdowns, punching in two rushing touchdowns from inside the 5. It’s rare to see White getting it done with his legs and not his arm, but, with the current state of the offense, WKU will take the points in whatever form they come in.

The real MVP of the game was the WKU defense. The Hilltoppers only allowed 287 total yards, but the real story was the damage control job the defense did.

All 14 points were given up in the first half, as WKU pitched a second half shutout. The Miners had multiple scoring opportunities, but the WKU defense repeatedly slam those opportunities shut.

UTEP was forced to settle for field goals three times, all of which were misses, allowing an early two-point conversion from Deon Yelder to serve as the deciding factor.

The WKU offense opened up the game on its own 15 yard line. Seven plays later, the Hilltoppers faced a fourth-and-two from its own 49. The offense would stay out on the field, but a handoff to Jakairi Moses would come up a yard short, giving the Miners great field position at the 50.

UTEP looked to be primed to capitalize on the short field, when Miner quarterback Zack Greenlee fumbled on a second and five at the WKU 10, setting up a third-and-11 from the 16 yard line.

The defense would hold, forcing a 34-yard field goal attempt from UTEP kicker Brady Viles. Viles was unable to convert, giving WKU the ball back on their own 20 with just under sevent minutes left in the first quarter.

Following a combined four consecutive punts to end the quarter, the WKU offense mounted the first scoring drive of the game. Following a 34-yard punt from the Miners, WKU started the possession at the UTEP 45.

An eight play, 45-yard drive was capped off by a five-yard keeper by White. WKU would then convert the two-point conversion, taking an 8-0 lead on the Miners early in the second quarter.

This was the last time WKU would score in the half, however, as the next 10 minutes belonged to the Miners. On the ensuing possession, UTEP would get on the board with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Greenlee to wide receiver Kavika Johnson, making the score 8-7.

Following a WKU three-and-out, the Miners would strike again. While a Terry Juniel punt return touchdown was called back for a holding penalty, UTEP once again started out with great field position at the WKU 37.

UTEP opened the drive with a 31-yard completion to Walter Dawn Jr. and finished it with a 5-yard keeper by Greenlee, putting the Miners ahead 14-8.

WKU looked to either take the lead or cut into it going into the half, and following a 21-yard completion to Lucky Jackson, the Hilltopper offense had the ball at the UTEP 30 with 1:22 to go in the half.

A sack on the next play would derail the momentum, but a 10-yard completion to Jakairi Moses would put WKU back in field goal range. With a chance to cut the lead in half, WKU kicker Ryan Nuss would miss wide left from 43 out, leaving WKU down 14-8 heading into the half.

The second half began similarly to the first, as the WKU offense came out firing on their first drive. Contrary to the beginning of the last half, the Hilltoppers would turn that hot start into points. A 13 play, 80-yard drive would be once again capped off by a White keeper, this time from only 1 yard out. White’s second rushing touchdown of the game put WKU up 15-14.

This would be WKU’s last scoring drive of the game, and it would be enough for a victory. The rest of the second half was a back and forth between the WKU defense and the UTEP offense.

The Miners would have multiple opportunities to score, including two missed field goals from Viles. The latter, a 40-yard attempt with two minutes to play, had fans playing replays of the Louisiana Tech game in their heads. Viles would miss his third attempt of the night, allowing the WKU offense to run out the clock and seal an ugly, but important, conference victory.

Looking ahead, WKU will host Charlotte next Saturday, Oct. 14, for homecoming. The 49ers come in at 0-6, and are winless through two games in C-USA play. The Hilltoppers will look to move to within two games of bowl eligibility with a victory. 

The homecoming crowd is sure to be a big one, and a majority of those in attendance will be looking for a resurgent effort from the offense. Coach Mike Sanford has plenty of adjustments to make in the next week, but WKU is starting to build momentum and looks to carry that over for a homecoming victory.

Reporter Tyler Eaton can be reached 270-776-6797 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @tylereaton_1022