Hilltoppers claim second consecutive C-USA road win, defense racks up seven sacks against FIU

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Steve Roberts, WKU Athletics

WKU redshirt linebacker Will Ignont (23), freshman running back Noah Whittington (20) and redshirt junior wide receiver Daewood Davis (18) stand at the ready on the sidelines during WKU’s 34-19 victory over FIU in Miami, Florida on Oct. 23, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) wrapped up its back-to-back Conference USA road slate with a 34-19 win over the Florida International Panthers (1-6, 0-3 C-USA) on Saturday night in Miami, Florida.

“Going on the road and getting a win is always hard,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “We talked about it all week of having that complete team win. I thought we got really close to that tonight…I was happy with just the overall performance of everybody. I can’t say enough again though about the defense and their performance.” 

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 368 yards and three touchdowns, completing 79.5% of his passes. 

“We just gotta continue to start fast, and again, we didn’t do that today,” Zappe said. “We’re going to get back, study film and get ready for Charlotte next week.”  

FIU redshirt senior gunslinger Max Bortenschlager completed 47% of his passes for 192 yards with a score through the air and another on the ground. 

WKU junior wideout Jerreth Sterns caught 14 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. 

FIU redshirt junior Randall St. Felix caught five passes for 104 yards with a 75-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. 

The WKU defense tallied seven sacks as a unit.

“The defense is definitely getting back on track,” graduate defensive end Michael Pitts said. “[We’re] getting more into the flow of things, working more together, building the bar with all the teammates.”

Q1

WKU lost the coin toss and FIU elected to receive. 

FIU started the game hot, marching down the field into WKU territory with ease. The Panthers entered the redzone after a third-and-four conversion with a Bortenschlager seven-yard completion.

Bortenschlager capped off the 12-play, 75-yard opening drive with a one-yard touchdown run on a quarterback sneak. Freshman kicker Chase Gabriel got his extra point blocked by redshirt junior Mike Allen, giving FIU just a 6-0 lead with 10:28 left in the first quarter.  

WKU’s first play was a wide-open drop by redshirt sophomore Joey Beljan and the Hilltoppers went three-and-out on their opening drive. The next three possessions also ended in three-and-outs before WKU got its wheels turning on offense. 

WKU picked up its first first down of the game with a Zappe nine-yard dump-off to graduate running back Adam Cofield. Freshman wideout Malachi Corley picked up WKU’s first third down of the game before fumbling the ball with FIU’s Andrew Volmar recovering and returning the pigskin to the Panthers’ 30-yard line. 

The Panthers carried their newfound momentum, picking up two third-and-ones to get into Hilltopper territory before the first quarter came to a close.

Q2 

Senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone sacked Bortenschlager on a second-and-12 to open up the second quarter. FIU was forced to punt the ball away and punter Tommy Heatherly pinned WKU on its own two yard line. 

Both teams would each pick up a first down before punting. The Hilltoppers started moving the ball down the field with back-to-back Zappe completions to break into Panther territory. Jakairi Moses kept the drive alive, picking up a third-and-two. WKU took a 7-6 lead with an eight-yard touchdown run by Cofield with 7:13 left in the first half. 

FIU responded quickly with a Bortenschlager 75-yard touchdown pass to wide-open St. Felix on the first play of the drive. The Panthers failed on their two-point attempt after Bortenschlager was sacked by Allen. 

WKU continued moving the ball on its next drive, getting into the redzone with a mix of running and passing. Zappe connected with Cofield to get to the one-yard line but FIU’s defense stepped up, forcing a 23-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson. Narveson nailed the attempt to cut FIU’s lead to 12-10 with 1:22 left in the first half. 

The WKU defense then forced a punt, giving the Hilltoppers one more shot to score with 56 seconds left before the break. Cofield got the one-minute drive going with a 12-yard run before Zappe commanded the offense down to field goal range. 

Zappe instead found the end zone with a 32-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley, giving WKU a 17-12 lead with 15 seconds left in the first half. FIU kneeled out the clock to send both teams to the locker rooms.

“For us, a minute left is enough time for the way we play and our tempo,” Zappe said. 

Q3 

The Hilltoppers started the second half by mixing the run and the pass to get into Panther territory. Sterns capped off the possession with a 25-yard touchdown reception after rolling on top of a defender before diving into the end zone to extend the WKU lead to 24-12 with 11:35 left in the third quarter. 

“We had that two-minute drive right there at the end and scored real quick,” Helton said. “That gave us momentum going in the locker room and [we] come right back out on the opening drive and scored in the third quarter. That was huge. Those are the things you need to do on the road to win and that’s why I was happy with our team tonight.”   

FIU senior halfback D’Vonte Price broke off explosive runs to get the Panthers into Hilltopper territory but the WKU defense forced another punt. Both teams would punt on the next three possessions. 

FIU went for a fake punt on fourth down to get its offense moving. The Panthers’ momentum ended four plays later when they failed to convert a fourth-and-12 on the WKU 37-yard line, ending the third quarter of play.   

Q4 

WKU marched down the field with short passes, moving the ball inside the FIU 10-yard line. Zappe connected with Sterns on a two-yard touchdown pass, extending the Hilltopper lead to 31-12 with 11:08 left in the game.

The Hilltopper defense forced another FIU punt after redshirt sophomore Nicholas Day’s sack on third down.

“It felt great just to be back with my brothers,” Days said. “Just being able to just have fun, just play with the guys [and] be on the sideline. It’s been great.”    

WKU marched down the field from its 10-yard line all the way into FIU territory. Zappe connected with Sterns for 39 yards to put the Hilltoppers on the Panthers’ 10-yard line. WKU settled for a 26-yard field goal from Narveson to extend its lead to 34-12 with 4:08 left to play.  

FIU put their second team unit in on offense for its last drive. The second team unit pushed the ball down the field before redshirt sophomore running back Shaun Peterson Jr. punched in a three-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 34-19 with 1:39 remaining.

The Hilltoppers ate the rest of the clock to finish out the night and win their second consecutive C-USA game. 

Up next, WKU returns to Houchens-Smith Stadium for its homecoming game against the Charlotte 49ers on Oct. 30 at 3:00 p.m. CT.    

“Winning games solves a lot of problems,” Helton said. “When you win games and do like we’ve done, back-to-back weeks, it gives you momentum. Now, you get to go home [and] get to play a tough Charlotte team. You want to have that momentum. You want to have that good look in your eye. You want to feel good about what you’re doing. My locker room right now is in a really good place.”

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.