WKU defeats MTSU in thrilling fashion

Senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris (15), runs through the defense before being tackled by MTSU’s safety, Jovante Moffatt (7) during WKU’s 44-43 win on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in Murfeesboro, Tn. Norris contributed 87 yards on seven catches. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

With their conference title hopes hinging on the outcome of a road trip to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Hilltoppers notched a critical 44-43 victory over Middle Tennessee State University in double overtime on Saturday.

The last two meetings between the teams in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, had gone to overtime, and WKU Head Coach Jeff Brohm was not surprised when the score was knotted at 30 with no time remaining in regulation.

“I think we knew that if we wanted a chance to stay in the championship hunt, we had to win this game,” Brohm said. “We knew it was going to be tough. You can throw out all the records when we play [MTSU] because it’s gonna go down to the wire.”

For a game that went back-and-forth through all four quarters with momentum shifting in big waves, it was almost a given that whoever had the ball last had the best shot at victory. 

“We tried to preach to our team, especially at the half, to just stay in the moment,” Brohm said. “You can’t get worried about the score, you can’t get worried about what might happen. Just stay in the moment and play each play as hard as you can.”

With the win, the Toppers move to 2-1 in conference play and move into third place in the C-USA East.

“It was a back-and-forth contest between two very good football teams that are battle-tested,” Brohm said. 

“We were fortunate enough to come out on top because it was a complete effort all the way down to the blocked extra point. That’s how small the difference between winning and losing is.”

The Toppers’ final drive in regulation started on their 22-yard line with 1:31 left on the clock.

With no timeouts remaining, redshirt junior quarterback Mike White found senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris close to the sideline where he converted a fourth-and-three at the WKU 35-yard line.

One 23-yard Norris reception later, White got it to senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor who took the ball to the MTSU seven-yard line.

On second-and-goal, White scrambled for what appeared to be the winning score, but referees ruled he was down at the half-yard line.

His pass on third down fell incomplete, and sophomore kicker Skyler Simcox sent an 18-yard field goal through the uprights, sending the game to overtime tied at a score of 30.

“I thought I got in, but after that, I settled in, and we scored,” White said. “We know we’re the best team on the field every time we step out there, so if we can tie the game and go into overtime, I like our chances. We knew it was just a matter of time before we sealed the deal.”

Redshirt senior running back Anthony “Ace” Wales took the ball 25 yards for a touchdown on the first play of overtime, but MTSU redshirt senior I’Tavius Mathers answered with a three-yard score of his own on the Blue Raiders first possession.

Wales carried the load for the Toppers, rushing for 158 yards on 27 attempts along with three touchdowns.

“I knew my team needed me to have a great game for us to get this win, but I really can’t thank my offensive line enough,” Wales said. “As a running back, seeing the holes open like they were today, it doesn’t get any better.”

Next, MTSU redshirt sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill found redshirt senior wideout Dennis Andrews in the end zone to put the Blue Raiders up 43-37.

But MTSU’s extra point was blocked by redshirt junior tight end Deon Yelder, making the score 43-37 and leaving the door open for WKU to capitalize.

“I was getting real close to the line, and I was like, ‘I need to scoot up some,’” Yelder said. “So I told the defensive linemen that protect me, ‘Let me get between you all more, let me get between you all.’ They scooted over a little more, and I just got myself in position, and I was right there for the block.”

Wales punched the ball in from the one-yard line on the next possession, and Simcox’s extra point sealed the victory for the Toppers (4-3, 2-1 C-USA).

“It’s an awesome feeling. It’s like the ultimate dream for a kicker,” Simcox said. “I was pretty calm… it was an extra point, and it was something that you’re expected to make.”

In a back-and-forth battle for the majority of the game, a wild series of events in the fourth quarter changed the rhythm of the match.

With just under 11 minutes remaining in the game, Stockstill’s pass was batted and intercepted by linebacker Keith Brown at the WKU 17-yard line. Brown returned it all the way to the MTSU 33-yard line, putting the Topper offense in position to score.

Two plays later, White was flushed out of the pocket on second down and had the ball knocked out of his hands.

Freshman running back Quinton Baker recovered the loose ball on the WKU 47-yard line. On third-and-40, Taylor got the ball to the MTSU 32 only to see Simcox miss a 49-yard field goal.

MTSU took four minutes and 11 seconds off the clock on the ensuing drive and kicked a field goal to go up 30-27.

On the Toppers’ next drive, White’s pass intended for Taylor in single coverage on the right sideline was intercepted.

MTSU took over on its 15-yard line but had to punt after failing to convert a third and one with just under two minutes remaining.

White then led the game-tying drive and forced overtime. White finished 29-40 passing for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s huge,” White said. “A lot of people counted us out after Louisiana Tech. We didn’t get sour about it, and we used it as motivation. We got better from it.”

The Toppers will follow up the victory with a Homecoming showdown with Old Dominion (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) which sits one spot ahead of WKU at second place in the C-USA East division. Kickoff starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.