Big plays spark WKU victory over Rice

Redshirt senior running back Anthony Wales (20) sprints down field after catching a pass during WKU’s 46-14 win against Rice on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 at L.T. Smith Stadium. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

It took the majority of the first quarter for WKU to find its rhythm, but the Hilltoppers found their footing and cruised to a 46-14 win over Rice on Thursday night.

“I was very proud of our football team,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “I thought they were ready to play and were locked in and focused. We challenged our guys to make sure we did the small things right. We wanted to go out and prove what this team is about, and I like the way we played as far as our effort.”

The Hilltopper defense was preparing for Rice’s up-tempo offense all week long, and for a team that plays fast, the game started off slow for Rice.

After a quick three-and-out forced the Owls to punt, the long snap sailed over punter Jack Fox’s head and out of the back of the end zone, resulting a safety and an early 2-0 lead for WKU.

“I knew our defense would play at a high level,” Brohm said. “We’ve challenged them to be a dominating defense this year. Our guys played hard and they did the best job of coming ready to play.”

The Hilltoppers failed to take advantage of a 65-yard kickoff return by redshirt-junior specialist Kylen Towner, turning it over on downs on the Rice 21-yard line. And after a subsequent three-and-out of its own, the WKU offense woke up.

“We wanted to run the ball a little bit more than we did,” Brohm said. “We were not as effective as I would’ve liked to be, but we were able to hit some shots down the field.”

With five minutes left in the first quarter, the Hilltoppers knocked off some early-season jitters and a typical Jeff Brohm offense appeared. New starting quarterback Mike White led the WKU offense on an 86-yard drive resulting in the first Hilltopper touchdown of the year.

The drive was sparked by a 45-yard strike from White to senior wideout Taywan Taylor on third down. Senior tailback Ace Wales bookended the drive with a 5-yard score—the first of four straight touchdowns for WKU.

“I wouldn’t say it was [blown coverage],” senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris said. “We just had an extra chip on our shoulder because all summer we’ve been hearing that we can’t be the same team after losing a couple guys so we just wanted to show them that we can do the same things that we did last year.”

From that point on, it was an offensive clinic for White and company. The next drive didn’t take long, as Norris hauled in an 87-yard bomb making the score 16-0. Norris finished the game with 147 yards on seven catches with two touchdowns.

“Mike and I had that connection in practice and we just knew after he called that play that it would be a touchdown,” Norris said. “He put a great ball out there and I did the rest for six.”

WKU took a 30-7 lead into halftime and never looked back. White finished his debut at home going 25-31 for 517 yards and three touchdowns—numbers even he didn’t expect for his first game in red and white.

“If I told you that I would be lying,” White said when asked if he expected to play the way he did. “I think just a testament to the guys we have around me. It all starts up front with the big brothers of this offense, and then our receiving corps and running backs get the ball in space and take care of the rest.”

The big plays came often and in sizable chunks. The second-half scoring flurry also included junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant’s first career touchdown on a six-yard catch at the goal line.

Fant finished with five catches for 44 yards. Taylor led the Tops in receiving with 165 yards on five receptions with a generous 33-yard average per catch.  

As for the defensive effort, the Owls never had a chance to score when it mattered, thanks to efforts like redshirt-junior linebacker T.J. McCollum’s.

McCollum notched 12 total tackles, and the defense totaled two turnovers with redshirt-junior defensive back De’Andre Simmons and redshirt-freshman A.J. Jackson both picking off Rice passer Tyler Stehling.

“I knew Rice was a good football team,” Brohm said. “They’re a perennial bowl-contender and last year they didn’t perform the way they wanted, but I think this year we earned the victory.”

In a season-opener in which expectations were uncertain, Brohm’s offense shined and the defense held its own for 60 minutes.

With the win on Thursday night, WKU picked up its 13th straight victory over C-USA opponents, and will carry some momentum into a matchup with the top-ranked team in the country in the defending National Champions of Alabama.

Kickoff for the game is set for 2:30 p.m. in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 2.