WKU has had several games ripped from its clutches this season.
The Toppers stole one back Saturday.
Sophomore Kawaun Jakes threw a touchdown pass on fourth down to tie Arkansas State with no time left in regulation, and WKU (2-8, 2-4 Sun Belt Conference) successfully converted a two-point conversion in overtime to win 36-35 at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark.
“Our team did something that we haven’t done all year,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said via phone interview after the game. “One thing our football team was missing was being able to come from behind and win a ballgame. A lot of games that we’re going to be in, we’re going to have to come from behind.”
WKU tried to go for the win after Jakes found freshman receiver Willie McNeal for a 7-yard score at the end of the fourth quarter.
But the Toppers picked up a delay-of-game penalty, which Taggart said was lucky because they had the wrong personnel on the field for a two-point try. WKU opted for the extra point that time.
Then after junior running back Bobby Rainey pulled WKU within one with a 3-yard touchdown run in overtime, Taggart pulled the trigger.
Junior cornerback Derrius Brooks, who converted from receiver this season, took a reverse around the left end, diving into the end zone to give the Toppers their second win in their last 30 games.
“I told him I know my speed, and I know what I can do, whether it’s on a reverse or a pass play,” Brooks said. “Anthing for the Tops — anything to get a win.”
It looked like WKU wouldn’t need any dramatics to get a win heading into the fourth quarter, as the Toppers held a 21-7 lead.
But ASU scored 21 unanswered points to start the fourth, eventually reclaiming the lead with a 2-yard touchdown run by quarterback Ryan Aplin with 1:49 left in the game.
Jakes was stopped short of the chains on a fourth-down run on the next drive, but the Toppers caught a huge break after getting three stops and burning all of their timeouts.
The Red Wolves snapped the ball over their punter’s head, moving them back 29 yards and giving WKU the ball at the ASU 22-yard line with 54 seconds left.
Jakes converted a long third down with a 17-yard pass to sophomore receiver Dexter Haynes before finding McNeal as time expired.
“We learned that we’re always in the game,” Jakes said. “‘Believe’ is the word of the year, and we showed it today.”
WKU decided to send its defense out first in overtime, and Aplin wasted no time with a 25-yard touchdown run up the middle on the first play.
Aplin had a big day all-around, throwing for 306 yards and rushing for 96 more. He had five total touchdowns.
“They’re a really good football team,” Taggart said. “One thing we knew going in was that they’re a really good fourth-quarter team, and they showed that today. Our guys stuck in there, and we’ve been talking all year that quitters never win. We didn’t quit today.”
Despite Aplin’s big statistics, WKU’s defense made life rough for the quarterback all day long.
The Toppers forced five turnovers in the game, including two interceptions by Brooks. Junior defensive end Jared Clendenin also recovered two fumbles forced by senior linebacker Orlando Misaalefua, and sophomore defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen recovered another.
“It was like destiny — they roll right to me,” Clendenin said. “But I give (Misaalefua) credit for stripping them out.”
The Red Wolves finished the game with 448 yards of offense, but they had just 233 through three quarters.
Despite the fourth-quarter meltdown, Taggart said he’s seen his defense progressing all season, and five turnovers shows that.
“These guys are just used to what (defensive coordinator Clint) Bowen’s calling and anticipating what he’s about to call,” Taggart said. “That allows them to play fast, and again, we practice those things — getting interceptions and stripping the ball.”
Rainey finished the game with 154 rushing yards on a career-high 37 carries with two touchdowns. He got WKU’s only score of the first half on a 3-yard run in the second quarter to go along with his touchdown in overtime.
Jakes completed just 11 of 27 passes for 151 yards, but he threw for two touchdowns and ran for one more — a 3-yard keeper in the third quarter that put WKU up 14-7.
Haynes also caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Jakes with 2:46 left in the third that swelled the Toppers’ advantage to 21-7. He finished with 89 yards on three receptions, even more crucial after WKU lost sophomore receiver Marcus Vasquez to a broken collarbone last week.
“Coach made the statement all week that somebody needed to step up in the passing game with him down,” Haynes said. “I just thank God I was that man.”
ASU receiver Taylor Stockemer had 80 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Dwayne Frampton also caught a 6-yard TD.
WKU ran 27 more plays than the Red Wolves and held the ball for almost 41 of 60 minutes in regulation.
Despite all that, it still took the Toppers some resiliency to get the win. But Taggart said that’s better than the alternative.
“We’re just learning how to win,” he said. “This whole year’s been that way. We’ve been in a ton of situations where we can learn different ways to win, and it hasn’t resulted in the wins. But we learned step by step, and we got another big step tonight.”