Hilltoppers grind out victory over Miami (Ohio)

Junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant (1) is driven out of bounds by Miami (Ohio) defensive back Deondre Daniels (15) during WKU’s 31-24 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, Sept. 17 at Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

In a game in which it was heavily favored, the WKU football team found itself in an up-and-down dogfight with Miami University (Ohio) before notching a 31-24 victory on Saturday.

“Well it was a rough one for us today,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said in a postgame radio interview. “Luckily, we have enough guys on our team that want to win and it means something to them. We did play hard and fortunately for us, our defense came up big.”

The Hilltoppers entered halftime leading 14-3 with the only scores coming from a two-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Quinton Baker and a 48-yard punt return for a touchdown by junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant.

After accumulating just 120 rushing yards while trying to establish a ground game in the first two games of the season, the Topper backfield produced 136 total yards rushing despite the first and second running backs on the depth chart not playing on Saturday.

With redshirt sophomore running back D’Andre Ferby still sidelined with a shoulder injury and starting running back Anthony Wales inactive for undisclosed reasons, Baker took full advantage of the opportunity.

The freshman running back from Ashland accounted for 103 yards on 20 rushes along with his first touchdown of the season.

“The thing about Quinton is he’s always going to go as hard as he can,” Brohm said. “We can count on him to compete and that’s all you can ask. We have to school him up and get him ready and find a way to utilize him better.”

After sustaining a head injury last week against Alabama, redshirt junior quarterback Mike White started Saturday and rebounded, going 19-31 for 268 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was just a bounce back from last week,” senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris said in a postgame radio interview. “Me and Mike White didn’t connect as much as we wanted to last week and we worked on that … so today he started to find me and we made plays.”

White found Norris for a 53-yard score early in the second half, stretching WKU’s lead to 18. Norris finished the game with a career-high 187 yards off of 11 catches.

After adding a field goal and allowing a Miami (Ohio) touchdown, Redhawks quarterback Billy Bahl dropped back and threw a pass in Brandon Leston’s direction.

Leston deflected the ball into Miami receiver James Gardner’s hands. 70 yards later, the Toppers saw their lead shrink to just seven.

“We made some critical mistakes on defense late in the game, but we were tired and that caused some of that,” Brohm said. “Those are things we learn from.”

But the Toppers fired back quickly and effectively, as White orchestrated a 1:16 drive capped by a 36-yard touchdown caught by senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor.

The scoring play marked the 172nd reception of Taylor’s career, making him the WKU all-time receptions leader.

“We came in together and we said we were going to leave together, so we put this receiving corps on our back after the past guys left and the other receivers just follow behind us and we just lead the way,” Norris said of the tandem’s record-setting day.

After leading 31-17 for the majority of the fourth quarter, Bahl dropped back and launched a ball toward the end zone, where the ball sipped through Leston’s hands again.

“On both of those, I think Brandon Leston could’ve gone up with two hands and picked [them] off,” Brohm said. “On the hail mary, I hate to say it but it looks like we tried to catch it instead of bat it down.”

The ensuing Redhawks onside kick was recovered by the statistically surest hands in WKU history in Taylor, and the Toppers ran out the clock for the win.

A big part of the defensive effort that helped propel the Toppers to victory was graduate transfer Keith Brown.

Brown had 12 total tackles and one sack. He credits a lot of his success to defensive coordinator Nick Holt.

“He wants me and the other linebackers to make all the plays on the field and we go out there and do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll make all the plays every time,” Brown said of Holt in a postgame radio interview.

Next up for the Toppers is another non-conference game against Vanderbilt University on Saturday at 3:30 in Smith Stadium.

“We have a long way to go,” Brohm said. “We missed a few guys on offense and you could tell we weren’t the same. We’ve just got a lot of improvement to make.”

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