WKU gets back to .500 with win over Ball State

WKU running back Jakairi Moses gets tackled by a Ball State player during the Hilltopers’ 33-21 win against Ball State on Saturday, September 23, 2017 at L.T. Smith Stadium.

Sam Porter

With 4:50 left to play in WKU’s Week 3 matchup with Ball State, running back Caleb Huntley muscled his way into the end zone to give the visiting Cardinals a 21-20 lead over WKU. All of a sudden, nostalgia of last week’s fourth quarter meltdown against Louisiana Tech began to set in.

Trailing by one, redshirt senior quarterback Mike White engineered an eight-play, 76-yard drive to give WKU a 26-21 lead. White went 6-6 for 67 yards on the game-winning drive as freshman running back Jakairi Moses punched it in from 5 yards out for the go-ahead score.

“I told them that this is the time, this is a big turning point of our season,” White said. “We could go out there and crumble and start 1-3 or we could go out there and do what we’re capable of doing and get to 2-2. We knew we had it in us, it was just a matter of going out there and putting the plays together.”

Senior cornerback Joe Brown intercepted Ball State quarterback Jack Milas on the following possession, and returned it 34 yards for the final dagger, leaping up to “the Berm” afterward in celebration as WKU pulled out a 33-21 victory to improve to 2-2 (0-1 Conference USA) on the season. It was the second straight game Brown intercepted a pass late in a close game, only this time the redshirt senior was able to take it back the other way to ensure the victory.

“We had a man pressure which was a great call by Coach [Clayton] White,” Brown said about the interception. “Salute to the guys up front; they made it tough for the quarterback. I saw the route, I jumped it, and the rest is history.”

WKU started the opening drive of the game at its own 42 after the Cardinals squib kicked the opening kickoff. White took his time moving the offense down the field, completing 7 of 9 passes to five different receivers. The preseason C-USA Player of the Year capped off the drive by finding redshirt senior tight end Deon Yelder on third and goal giving WKU a 7-0 lead and Yelder his first career touchdown.

Ball State would answer later in the first quarter, as quarterback Jack Milas drove the Cardinals 64 yards in six plays, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by former WKU commit Huntley. Milas and Huntley both filled in for usual starters Riley Neal and James Gilbert, who both missed the game with injuries.

On the ensuing possession, White drove WKU deep into Ball State territory before Ball State linebacker Damon Singleton picked off his pass to stall the drive. White finished the game 28-44 for a season high 319 yards and a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions in the red zone.

“Jakairi was out there running an isolation route,” head coach Mike Sanford said referring to the interception. “It was his first time running it in the game. He didn’t quite declare the route enough and the linebacker was able to make a great play.”

The Hilltopper defense stopped the ensuing Cardinals possession, forcing a punt. Senior wide receiver Nacarius Fant returned the punt for a minimal return, but a targeting penalty on Ball State’s Brandon Martin gave the Hilltoppers first down at the Cardinals’ 47 yard line.

The Hilltopper offense took advantage of the short field, driving 47 yards in eight plays capped off by a 2-yard touchdown by redshirt sophomore running back Marquez Trigg to give WKU a 17-7 lead at the half. 

Midway through the third quarter, redshirt junior punter Jake Collins pinned Ball State and company at their own 1-yard line, preceding what appeared to be the biggest play of the day for the WKU defense. Junior defensive back Drell Greene jumped in front of a Milas pass and intercepted it, giving WKU the ball at the Cardinals’ 33-yard line with a 10 point lead. However, White followed it with his second red zone interception of the night, and Ball State answered with its second touchdown of the game to cut the lead to three points.

“That was a critical red zone play,” Sanford said about the second interception. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to clean up. We’ve got to finish in the red zone, and if we finish in the red zone we come away tonight feeling really good about our offensive performance.”

The Hilltoppers answered later in the second half with a field goal to push the lead to six points. Later in the quarter, Milas drove the Cardinals down for Huntley’s second touchdown of the night, giving Ball State their first lead with under five minutes to play.

For the first time in his WKU career, White engineered a go-ahead fourth quarter touchdown drive to give WKU a 26-21 lead. Brown’s interception return sealed it as Sanford earned his first victory over an FBS opponent.

“I felt like we were a complimentary team tonight for the first time,” Sanford said. “A team where the offense complemented the defense when it most mattered, and the defense came back and complemented the offense. The special teams complemented both units. Thats what we want to do, play football where the three phases complement each other.”

The win improves WKU to 2-2 (0-1 C-USA) while Ball State drops to 2-2. The Hilltoppers do not play next Saturday and travel to Texas-El Paso the following Saturday in their second C-USA game of the season.