WKU tops EKU in renewal of Battle of the Bluegrass

Western Kentucky University quarterback Mike White (14) looks to make a pass during the second half of the WKU – EKU football game on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at L.T. Smith Stadium. WKU defeated EKU 31-17.

Sam Porter

For the first time since 2008, Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky met on the gridiron when the two took the field at Houchens-Smith Stadium to open the 2017 season.

The matchup was the first time the two former rivals met since the Hilltoppers fully made the transition to the FBS level. The Hilltoppers defeated the Colonels 31-17 and opened the Mike Sanford era 1-0. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White threw for 264 yards and one touchdown while redshirt sophomore Lucky Jackson caught five passes for a career high 144 yards and a touchdown.

The Hilltopper defense gave up just 67 rushing yards on 22 attempts. 

“It was a great week 1, and it was a great wake up call for us,” White said. “It was nice to get the cobwebs shaken off. D’Andre Ferby took a hit for the first time in a year. I took a hit which was nice because I don’t get hit in practice. Overall, it just felt good to get out there.” 

The visiting Colonels were able to keep it scoreless throughout the first quarter, but the Hilltoppers began to find their groove early in the second quarter.

Redshirt junior running back D’Andre Ferby punched it in from two yards out to cap off a 16-play, 89-yard drive, eating up 6:20 worth of clock in the process.

After the WKU defense forced a three-and-out, the WKU offense didn’t take their time on the next drive. On third and 12 from his own 34, White found redshirt sophomore Lucky Jackson for a 66-yard catch and run to push the lead to 14-0.

After the WKU defense forced another three-and-out, it appeared the momentum fully shifted in the Hilltoppers’ favor. However, EKU defensive back Ben Bascom had other plans in mind. Bascom sacked White, forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

Fortunately for WKU, a block in the back penalty on the Colonels negated the touchdown and set them up at the Hilltopper 36-yard line. After the Colonels gained just nine yards on three plays, second-year head coach Mark Elder decided to go for it on 4th and 1 at the WKU 27.

Former Louisville running back L.J. Scott was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, giving the ball back to WKU and keeping the Colonels off the scoreboard. Scott was held to just 25 yards on eight attempts in his debut in an EKU uniform. 

“One of our priorities is stopping the run,” redshirt junior Joel Iyiegbuniwe said. “I feel like we came out and did that. Overall, we still didn’t play as well as we could. So we’re going to watch some film and focus on next week.” 

White drove WKU down the field, settling for a Ryan Nuss field goal to give the Hilltopers a 17-0 halftime lead. 

A different Colonel offense came out to start the 2nd half. Former Connecticut quarterback Tim Boyle found Ryan Markush for a 50-yard deep ball early on their opening drive of the half. Just a few plays later, Boyle found Markush again for a six-yard score to cap off a six-play, 73-yard drive and put the Colonels on the board. 

After Ferby punched it in for his second touchdown of the night, Boyle and Markush went back to work. Boyle drove the Colonels down to the 10-yard line before finding Markush for his second score of the game. Boyle finished the game 29-46 for 320 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked just one time. 

“Defensively, we’ve got to find ways to rush the passer and get off the field,” Sanford said. “We played against a quarterback that didn’t miss much. But at the same time, we let him get comfortable in the pocket.” 

Looking to put the Colonels away, an unfamiliar face made his presence known. Redshirt sophomore Marquezz Trigg carried the football 10 times for 42 yards on a 16 play, 58 yard scoring drive, punching it in on 4th and goal from the 1 to push the lead to 17 once again. Trigg ended up leading WKU with 65 yards rushing on 16 carries. The Glasgow product saw more playing time than usual due to the suspension of sophomore running back Quentin Baker. 

“Marquezz Trigg had a serious look in his eyes in the second half,” Sanford said. “He’s going to be a very good back. Our running back group will be a very good group as a whole. We were good today, but we have to be better next week.” 

The Colonels answered with a field goal to make it a two possession game, but that would be the last score the game as WKU held on for the 31-17 victory.

The Hilltoppers travel to Champaign, Illinois next saturday for a matchup against the University of Illinois. The Fighting Illini defeated Ball State 24-21 in their opener. WKU will be looking for their first win over a Big Ten opponent in program history.