The WKU football program has officially accepted an invitation to compete in the First Responder Bowl, which will be played in Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas on Dec. 30, WKU athletic director Todd Stewart and head coach Tyson Helton confirmed Sunday.
The Hilltoppers (8-4, 6-2 C-USA), riding a three-game winning streak to bowl eligibility and the program's first bowl appearance since the 2017 Cure Bowl, are set to square off against Western Michigan (7-5, 5-3 MAC), which finished second in the Mid-American Conference West Division race.
Kickoff in the home stadium of the SMU Mustangs is set for 11:30 a.m., and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
“We’ll have a lot of eyeballs on us December 30th,” Stewart said. “It’s an ESPN game, national game, much-deserved attention. Western Michigan is a really good team. It’s a tough opponent, but that’s what you want in a bowl game, and again, it’s an opportunity. These are the things we have to do if we’re going to be relevant nationally.”
WKU and WMU will meet for the 16th time in the First Responder Bowl, but each of the team's previous 15 matchups occurred between 1923 and 1947. The Hilltoppers trail the Broncos 11-3-1 in the all-time series, including losses in each of the last three meetings.
The bowl game will be the Hilltopper program's sixth in the past eight seasons and WKU's 29th postseason game in program history.
“I think our guys will be really excited,” Helton said. “I know our players will [be excited] to have one more opportunity to try go to get a big bowl win. It’s great that it’s in Dallas. We’ll get to play a good Western Michigan football team. It’ll be a very challenging game for us, but it should be an exciting game as well. I know our guys will be looking forward to getting to practice and getting things going.”
The 2019 Broncos had a chance to play in the MAC Championship game, but a 17-14 loss at Northern Illinois in the season finale dashed those hopes. The disappointing loss was one of five on the road for WMU in 2019, as the squad was 6-0 at home and 1-5 away.
The WMU offense is led by senior running back LeVante Bellamy, who was voted the 2019 MAC Vern Smith Leadership Award winner as the league's MVP and the MAC Offensive Player of the Year.
The Doak Walker Award semifinalist leads the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns and ranks 10th in the country with 1,412 yards rushing in 2019.
The Bronco defense is anchored by junior linebacker Treshaun Hayward, who was tabbed the MAC Defensive Player of the Year after tallying 132 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
“We have a chance to play one more," WMU head coach Tim Lester said in a release. "It has been a tough couple of weeks. We have to get better. I have to get better. The coaches have to get better. The greatest thing is we have another chance this year to send our seniors out the right way. It all ends with one last game in Dallas. We're excited to head there."
The First Responder Bowl is the fifth bowl game in the last six seasons for both programs, as WKU missed the postseason in 2018 and WMU fell just short in 2017.
The Broncos are 1-8 in their nine bowl game appearances, while the Hilltoppers are 3-2 in their five previous trips to Football Bowl Subdivision bowl games.
WKU hasn’t prevailed in a bowl game since a 51-31 win over Memphis in 2016, but WMU’s only win in a bowl game to date came one season earlier in 2015 — a 45-31 triumph over Middle Tennessee State.
WKU played its three most recent bowl games in the state of Florida (Miami, Boca Raton and Orlando), one bowl game out of the country in Nassau, Bahamas, and its first bowl appearance as a full-fledged FBS member in Detroit seven seasons ago.
But the Hilltopper football program has never had a chance to take the red towel logo to the Lone Star State, which is an exciting prospect for Stewart.
“Well, that’s the neat thing about bowl games is it lets you take your program somewhere else,” Stewart said. “This is a little different for us, but I think it’s a positive ... We have not played a bowl game in Texas. I think Dallas is a great vibrant city and it’ll be a great experience for our team and our fans.”
Helton said a bowl game in Texas “comes at a good time” because the Hilltoppers are currently recruiting the state heavily in both the junior college and high school ranks.
An extra game will also be “extremely important” for maintaining the program’s positive momentum in 2020.
“It allows you to gain a little bit of an edge,” Helton said. “You have spring football, but this is like having spring football twice, and how we practice is unique to a lot of teams. Everybody gets reps, everyone is constantly being developed. It allows us more opportunities now to continue to develop our young players. I don’t think you lose a lot. You play in the bowl game, you have a little time off, come back in January and the next thing you know you’re in spring football. I think there’s a lot of positives to it.”
Gerald J. Ford Stadium, a 32,000-seat facility that opened in 2000, is roughly 45 minutes away from The Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas, which is the home of the C-USA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments each March.
Droves of Hilltopper fans already make the trip to Texas for basketball each spring, so Stewart is confident that WKU football will have a solid showing in regard to attendance because “there’s no reason not to be there.”
“The way this team has played, again the conversations we’re having today versus a year ago, these guys deserve the Hilltopper nation to be there — really do,” Stewart said. “I think they’ve done their part. They’ve done a tremendous job all year long of rising to the occasion.
“I think what’s great about our program, we’re not about making bowl games, the goal is to win them,” Stewart continued. “If we win this bowl game and you take a look at the reality of that, it would be we tripled last season’s win total and finished with a bowl game. I mean, that would be an incredible accomplishment. It already has been, but that would add on to it. So, I hope our fans are there to help these guys hopefully achieve that goal.”
Helton, a native Texan, won’t get to coach WKU's bowl game before Christmas, and the players won’t get to play in Florida or New Orleans like they wished after defeating MTSU 31-26 on Senior Day.
But for many players, including senior leaders like graduate transfer quarterback Ty Storey and redshirt senior wide receiver Lucky Jackson, the First Responder Bowl will be the last time they get the chance to put on a Hilltopper uniform.
Just one year ago, it didn't seem possible that the last game of the 2019 seniors' careers would come in the postseason.
But Helton facilitated one of the top turnarounds in the nation, moving the Hilltoppers from 3-9 to 8-4 in just one year — a five-game win improvement.
Helton said those seniors, along with the rest of the WKU program, will be satisfied to have the chance to go out with a bowl victory.
“There’s one thing about our guys — they love to compete, and it doesn’t matter who you play or where you’re at, they love being able to put that uniform on and be able to try to go get a win,” Helton said.
WKU will certainly have “a lot to play for” against WMU, and Helton said the Hilltoppers must be “smart” in their approach to the crucial meeting with the Broncos in the First Responder Bowl.
“It’s what you play the season for is to get in a good bowl,” Helton said. “It’s kind of your championship. You got to view it with a championship mentality. It gives you momentum heading into the offseason, going into spring football. There’s so many things that we’re playing for right now, and it’s the last game for a lot of people. When you add all that together, it’s an extremely important game. It allows us to take the necessary steps to move our program forward to where we want to go. We’ll be excited represent the program and try to get this bowl win.”
Tickets for the 2019 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl can be purchased through the WKU Ticket Office or online at WKUTickets.com.