WKU squanders big lead in loss to Louisiana-Monroe

Louisiana-Monroe freshman running back Jyruss Edwards shakes off junior safety Ryan Beard on Saturday in the Toppers’ 35-30 loss to the Warhawks. ULM rattled off 28 straight fourth quarter points to offset a 24-21 WKU lead.

Zach Greenwell

Relief wasn’t just in sight for WKU on Saturday night. It was within its grasp.

But then in an all-too-familiar fashion, dejection crept back into the picture.

After leading 24-7 with 1:21 left in the third quarter, the Toppers (0-6, 0-2 Sun Belt Conference) surrendered 28 fourth-quarter points to Louisiana-Monroe, falling 35-30 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The defeat extends WKU’s losing streak — the longest in the nation — to 26 games.

“That’s one of the toughest losses I’ve been a part of,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said. “It just hurt for our players. They played really hard, but we just didn’t finish.”

ULM freshman quarterback Kolton Browning started the Warhawks’ comeback with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Luther Ambrose with 14:20 left in the fourth quarter, cutting WKU’s lead to 24-14.

The Toppers followed with two consecutive three-and-outs on offense, and ULM capitalized both times.

Running back Frank Goodin punched in a 1-yard score with 7:45 left, and fellow running back Jyruss Andrews scored on a 6-yard run to give the Warhawks their first lead of the game at 28-24 with 3:35 remaining.

“We were in uncharted waters,” Taggart said. “We finally had a game where we were up, and we didn’t handle it well. That’s part of the growing process with a young football team that hasn’t won a lot.”

Things didn’t get any better from there.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw an interception on WKU’s next drive, and it was returned 55 yards for a touchdown by Robert Nelson with 1:30 left.

“We got out and had some miscues right there at the end,” Taggart said. “We’d call a play and then go the wrong way. Rather than just settling down and taking a deep breath, we panicked a little bit.”

The Toppers gave themselves some hope when Jakes found freshman receiver Willie McNeal for a 13-yard touchdown strike with 50 seconds left.

WKU attempted an onside kick, but it was recovered by ULM.

“It’s frustrating, just like every other loss,” junior safety Ryan Beard said. “You don’t really know what to say until you see the film and see what happened where.”

Everything was smooth sailing for the Toppers through three quarters.

WKU forced the Warhawks to punt on their first four drives of the game and built a 17-0 lead in the second quarter before Edwards finally scored on a 33-yard touchdown run with 3:10 left in the first half.

Junior kicker Casey Tinius started the scoring for WKU with a 25-yard field goal at the 10:01 mark in the first quarter, and Jakes extended the lead to 14-0 with a 13-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Marcus Vasquez.

Junior running back Bobby Rainey added a 3-yard touchdown run with 5:29 remaining in the second quarter.

“It comes down to finishing,” Rainey said. “We played good for the first half, and then we didn’t play good in the second half, or we’ll play good in the second half and then not do it in the first half. You’ve got to start out and finish.”

Lost in the shuffle were Rainey’s 169 rushing yards on a career-high 32 carries.

Jakes finished 12-of-21 passing for 127 yards with two touchdowns and the one pivotal interception.

“Kawaun’s still growing in our offense,” Taggart said. “This isn’t an offense where he’s going to come out and be lights-out. I don’t care who’s in there, they’re not going to be lights-out right now.”

Vasquez caught six passes for 84 yards. Beard led the defense with 11 tackles.

WKU will immediately turn its attention to a road contest at Louisiana-Lafayette next Saturday.

Taggart said the coming week will be a pivotal point in the Toppers’ season, and one that will define how the rest of the year plays out.

“When you’re up, you’ve got to learn to step on their throat and keep them down, and again, we haven’t been in that situation before to know that,” Taggart said. “I told them that all we can do is go back to work.

“That’s all I know.”