Miscues cost WKU historic victory against Fighting Illini

Junior running back Leon Allen (33) hurdles Illinois’s Taylor Barton on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Kyle Williams

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – WKU put itself in prime position to secure its first-ever victory against a Big Ten opponent on Saturday at Illinois, but the Hilltoppers dropped a 42-34 decision largely due to costly turnovers and unfinished drives.  

Head Coach Jeff Brohm and the Hilltoppers (1-1) held a 27-21 lead heading into the final quarter before the Illini capitalized on two WKU mistakes and belted out 21 points in the fourth. 

“Without question I think we let one get away,” Brohm said. “We definitely were right there in the ball game.”

The Fighting Illini (2-0) totaled 520 yards of offense, 456 coming through the air, to WKU’s 400. Illinois converted nine of its 13 third downs and its time of possession was 35:06 compared to WKU’s 24:54.

Sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, led the way for the Fighting Illini having completed 35 of his 50 attempts for 456 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

“They were able to throw the ball and protect the quarterback a long time, and we weren’t able to get much pressure on him,” Brohm said. “They threw for way too many yards.”

WKU outgained Illinois in total offense in the first half, 249-218, led by junior running back Leon Allen, who tallied 19 carries for 112 yards and a touchdown with four receptions for 33 yards.

Allen finished the game with 24 carries, 118 yards and the one touchdown.

“It gives us more confidence,” Allen said. “I don’t think 11 wins sounds too bad. We made some mistakes in this game. We’ll make our corrections for next week…take it one game at a time.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, who rewrote the WKU record books last week against Bowling Green State, completed 28 of his 48 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and coughed up a costly fumble in the second half.

The Hilltoppers fell behind by a touchdown in the first quarter before a five-play, 16-yard drive set up a field goal for junior kicker Garrett Schwettman.

Junior linebacker Nick Holt stopped Illinois short of a touchdown later in the quarter despite having the ball at the one-yard line. That set up an 18-play, 99-yard drive that was capped off by Allen’s one-yard run to give WKU the 10-7 lead.

After a missed 43-yard field goal on the next possession, Doughty hit redshirt junior Tyler Higbee for a 16-yard score, making it 17-7 with 4:15 remaining in the half.

Two consecutive 11-play scoring drives at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second regained the lead for the Fighting Illini before the Hilltoppers went three-and-out to begin the second half.

Momentum was shifted entirely toward Illinois on the next possession as they marched the WKU five-yard line, but redshirt junior defensive back Wonderful Terry stripped an Illini receiver on the next play and took it 95 yards for the score, giving the Hilltoppers the 24-21 advantage.

“I just went in and tried to make a play, you know,” Terry said. “Do anything to help my team out. Put my hand in there, noticed the ball was in my hand and I took it the other way.”

On the following Illinois possession, redshirt junior defensive back Prince Charles Iworah picked off Lunt and returned it 20 yards, setting up a scoring opportunity for WKU – however, the Hilltoppers only managed a 19-yard field goal, which could have been a deciding factor.

“Our defense; they got two turnovers for us. We could have put a dagger in them if we could have scored when we intercepted the ball and we didn’t, which was unfortunate,” Brohm said. “We need to do that.”

An 88-yard touchdown drive and an interception returned for a score regained and extended the lead to 35-27 for the Fighting Illini with 10:15 left, and after a fumble recovery inside the WKU 30-yard line on the next drive, Illinois added another touchdown on a five-play, 21-yard drive.

Doughty managed to find junior receiver Antwane Grant for a 14-yard score that took only 1:17 off the clock in the waning moments, but Illinois ran out the remaining 26 seconds and sealed its second victory of the season.

With the loss, the Hilltoppers fall to 0-5 all-time versus the Big Ten, but Brohm still has plenty of promise for his young team.

“We’re a good football team,” Brohm said. “I think we can compete with anybody we play. I think we have guys that are improving and getting better every week. They played hard, we made some plays, unfortunately when you play good football teams you can’t make mistakes. You have to be more efficient than the other team. You have to take advantage of opportunities when they’re there.”