Energy and unity propel Hilltoppers to third straight bowl victory

Redshirt senior wide receiver Stephon Brown (17) kisses the Boca Raton Bowl trophy after WKU’s 51-31 win over the University of Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla.

Evan Heichelbech

Much like the last calendar year for the WKU football program, a lot of stuff happened in the Hilltoppers’ 51-31 victory over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday.

Despite being led by defensive-minded interim head coach Nick Holt, the Hilltoppers rolled to victory in the same way they have all season long: with a lot of offense.

“That’s what our theme was,” Holt said. “We were going to attack and not hold back like we always play.”


Thanks to his best statistical performance ever, Offensive MVP Ace Wales rushed 35 times for 245 yards and three touchdowns while adding 84 yards on four catches. The senior bookended his career with consecutive 200-yard rushing games and moved into a second-place tie for career rushing touchdowns in WKU history with 43.

“Coach Holt gave us great energy,” Wales said. “He changed practice to a way that was comfortable and pumped up. Guys were just ready to go. We all loved it and we all just wanted to dig down deep and get this win for this man.”

The Hilltoppers were without the services of former head coach Jeff Brohm, who left for Purdue earlier this month. Holt, who has been a part of the Hilltopper staff since 2013 and interviewed for the head coaching vacancy left by Brohm, said that the opportunity to lead this team into a bowl game made him feel like, “the luckiest man in the world.”

“It’s a great Christmas present,” Holt said. “I’m gonna enjoy it, I want these guys to enjoy their Christmas and they deserve it… We’re just gonna enjoy the moment and have a fun time.”

While Brohm may have been absent from FAU Stadium on Tuesday night, the offensive production yielded from his aggressive approach that carried the Hilltoppers to a 10-3 record and C-USA Championship this season was not.

“I told you from the day that coach Holt named me the play caller what the game plan was gonna be,” said wide receivers coach Bryan Ellis, who called the plays in the Boca Raton Bowl. “Sometimes we as coaches make it a little harder than it really is. We handed the ball off to No. 20 and we threw the ball to No. 15 and No. 2. There really wasn’t much more to it.”

The players who wear those numbers are better known as senior wide receivers Taywan Taylor (No. 2) and Nicholas Norris (No. 15), both of whom finished their collegiate careers as some of the most decorated pass catchers to play four years on The Hill.

Taylor reeled in nine catches for 144 yards and moved into 10th place in NCAA history with a third-quarter touchdown catch, the 41st of his career.

Norris finished with three catches for 65 yards and a score of his own.

“A lot of coaching is putting your good players in position to be successful,” Ellis said. “When you have a quarterback that makes really good decisions with a good offensive line, in my opinion, one of the best running backs in the country, and without a shadow of doubt the two best receivers in the country, you find ways to get them open and you let Mike [White] take care of the rest.”

In a matchup between two teams that are accustomed to lighting up scoreboards, both offenses stalled a bit in the early goings of the game, but heated up quickly in what turned into a back-and-forth scoring contest.

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson orchestrated a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive putting the Tigers on the board first with a 45-yard touchdown pass to running back Tony Pollard.

Ferguson finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns after leading a Tiger offense that averaged 461 yards of offense and 39.5 points per game in the regular season.

Three of Ferguson’s four touchdowns went to junior wide receiver Anthony Miller, but a few defensive stops from Holt’s defense in combination with a Hilltopper offense that refused to take its foot off the gas pedal were ultimately too much for the Tigers to keep up with.

“They’re big, aggressive guys and I mean, we watched film on them and they’re very aggressive,” said Defensive MVP and senior linebacker Keith Brown. “They like to run the ball downhill but our D-line is great, we have great linebackers and great safeties. We just came and played aggressive and outhustled them.”

WKU junior quarterback Mike White had the answer for Ferguson’s first score of the game, and then some after that. The first-year starter led the Hilltoppers on a 75-yard drive and capped it with a four-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Stevie Donatell with just under 11 minutes left in the opening quarter.

The Hilltoppers would go on to score on six of their next seven drives, building a 44-24 lead late in the third quarter behind some monster performances from a select group of seniors.

“It’s super special,” senior left tackle Forrest Lamp said of what the senior class has accomplished. “There’s nothing that ever has compared to it in my life. I just can’t thank our coaches enough that stayed around and stuck with us.”

As if Lamp didn’t already do enough for the WKU offense, his status as the anchor of the offense was further cemented toward the end of the first quarter. In a play called “Tampa Bay” that features an unbalanced line and a fake right sweep, Lamp snuck out and caught a screen pass, taking it in nine yards for his first and only score of his career.

“The last time I scored a touchdown was probably in my backyard against my little brothers,” Lamp said. “Probably at least six or seven years ago.”

The energy on the Hilltopper sidelines after “Tampa Bay” was called and executed to perfection was the same level of energy Holt put into his two weeks as interim head coach of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

“It was no secret that he wanted to be the head football coach at Western Kentucky,” Ellis said of Holt. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen… and our kids rallied around him. They love coach Holt. Even our offensive kids that aren’t around him as much got to spend two weeks with him. What that man’s done for this program in the last two weeks and the way he handled himself with class goes to show you that he deserves every bit of credit for leading us out there the way he did.”

The Hilltoppers (11-3) finished the season on an eight-game winning streak and as Boca Raton Bowl Champions, hanging at least 44 points on their opponents in the process.

“It’s just overcoming adversity,” White said. “At one point in the season we were 3-3 and there were two ways the season could go. It could go up or it could go down… It’s a real testament to the veteran guys we have.”