Hilltoppers claim C-USA Title for second consecutive season

Western Kentucky wide receiver Taywan Taylor (2) catches the ball to score a touchdown against Louisiana Tech during the C-USA Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016 at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Hilltoppers led 38-27 at the half. (Jeff Brown/Herald)

Evan Heichelbech

After setting a school record for wins and losing the school’s all-time leading passer, expectations surrounding WKU’s 2016 football season were a bit hampered.

The Hilltoppers were picked to finish second in the C-USA East division, and used that as motivation to fuel a second consecutive double-digit win season that was capped by a 58-44 victory and a C-USA title over Louisiana Tech University on Saturday.

“These guys deserve it,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “Last year was a heck of year and we had a lot of good seniors. A lot of people weren’t picking us to finish here we did and that’s what drove us to work hard and find a way to prove people wrong.”

In the win, the Hilltoppers became the first team in C-USA history to win back-to-back conference titles at home, and it marks the first time in WKU history that consecutive seasons ended with double-digit victories. 

The 108 points scored between the Hilltoppers and Bulldogs broke the record for the highest-scoring game of any conference championship game in history. 

“That’s what conference championship games should be about,” Brohm said. “I really couldn’t be prouder of our team. We’ve fought hard all year long. We were sitting at 3-3 at one point but our guys didn’t get down and we found a way to be critical of ourselves as coaches and players and improve.”

As it has all season long, Brohm’s offense dominated on Saturday. WKU was led by the trio of redshirt junior quarterback Mike White, senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor and C-USA Championship Game MVP, redshirt running back Anthony “Ace” Wales who sealed the game in the final minute with his fifth touchdown of the day.

White finished 21 of 31 for 421 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went to Taylor who hauled in seven passes for 194 yards receiving.

Wales helped the offense bring a balanced attack, piling up 209 rushing yards on 36 carries for two touchdowns, as well as 53 yards receiving for another score.

“I felt great,” Wales said. “I didn’t even notice I had that many carries, but it just feels good whenever you see your team winning and everybody was happy. I just love the atmosphere we were all in.”

After trailing 38-27 at the half, the Bulldogs came out firing to start the third quarter. La. Tech quarterback Ryan Higgins found a wide open Kam McKnight for a 53-yard score, narrowing the gap to just four points.

On the ensuing kickoff, WKU senior tight end Shaq Johnson dropped the kick and the Bulldogs jumped on the ball at the WKU 29-yard line.   

McKnight later ran the ball in from a yard out to give the Bulldogs their first lead, 41-38.

The Hilltoppers would respond, tying it back up at 41 with a 28-yard field goal on their next drive, and then retaking the lead on Wales’ fourth touchdown of the day after the Hilltopper defense forced a critical three-and-out.

“We knew our offense was gonna go out there and score so we just had to step up and get those stops and we got them,” senior linebacker Keith Brown said.

La. Tech countered with a field goal on the next possession, and caught another break when WKU kick return specialist Kylen Towner coughed the ball up on a kicoff return to the Bulldogs’ 32-yard line.

Brown and company were able to get another stop, forcing a punt and the Hilltoppers would add another field goal on their next drive to go up 51-44 before Wales sealed it with a touchdown run on third down inside the final minute.

“We’re a really confident group on both sides of the ball,” White said. “We trust what we’re taught, we trust what we know and we trust the players we have around us. We just wanted to go out there and score points for our team and for our defense.”

Both offenses got off to a quick start in a game where scoring was expected to come at a premium.  

After trading field goals on both team’s opening drive, White led the Hilltoppers on a seven-play, 70-yard drive ending in Wales’ first touchdown of the day.

When the Hilltoppers regained possession a little more than a minute of game time later, White dropped back and helped La. Tech to its first touchdown of the game, throwing a 48-yard pick six to Bulldogs’ defensive back L’Jarius Sneed.

 White would respond on the next drive, however, getting the Tops in the red zone and handing off to Wales who took it in for a 26-yard scamper to put the Tops up 17-10 toward the end of the first quarter.

 A six-yard Higgins-to- Carlos Henderson score two minutes later would even the score at 17.  

The tie wouldn’t last long, as Wales found the end zone for the third time, diving for the pylon after White flicked a pass to him from the five-yard line.

At the end of the first quarter, Wales had accumulated 99 total yards and three scores, helping WKU to a 24-17 lead.

“He’s an outstanding player and every game that we have him we’re gonna be a good football team,” Brohm said. “He knows that he’s a good football player and he has to produce for us to be able to win. And every time he takes the field, he normally does.”

Immediately after the start of the second quarter, Higgins and Henderson had the answer again, connecting for a 42-yard reception that set up a 5-yard score from Higgins to wide receiver Jarred Craft.

With 11:06 left in the second quarter, the Hilltopper offense made efficient use of its time, scoring on a two-play, 49-second drive capped by a 45-yard hook-up from White and Taylor.

 The Bulldogs added a field goal shortly after, only to see White and Taylor connect on a four-yard score minutes later. The Hilltoppers scored on six of their first eight drives in the first half, racking up 408 yards of offense in the process.

“In order to be a championship team, you’ve gotta be able to do both,” Brohm said. “I think balance isn’t running the exact same [number of] times as passing. It means you’ve gotta be able to pass it when you need to and you’ve gotta be able to run it when you need to.”

The historic win caps a 10-3 (8-1 C-USA) season for the Hilltoppers, who last lost to the Bulldogs in Ruston, Louisiana in early October.

Now, WKU will head to a bowl game for the third year in a row, looking to add another win to its list of accomplishments this season.

“It’s a huge accomplishment obviously,” senior left tackle Forrest Lamp said. “Not just for us, but for the university. We’re real proud to be a part of that. This program came a long way.”

When asked why he and other teammates ran towards the student section prematurely with time still left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Wales had only one response: “We’re conference champs baby.”