BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) — WKU took an early lead on their first possession of the game and never looked back as the Hilltoppers beat Rice, 45-10, to secure bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season, and the 11th time in 12 seasons.
The Tops improved to 7-4 for the year with the win, including a 5-2 mark in American Conference play. Due to the WKU’s 13-game schedule with a trip to Hawaii, the Hilltoppers needed to win seven games instead of six to become bowl-eligible this season. WKU also honored its senior class before kickoff.
“Good win from us today, I’m really proud of our football team,” said WKU head coach Tyson Helton. “I’m eligible for bowling today, it’s something we don’t take for granted here. I think 11 out of 12 years being eligible for bowling is a big deal here. I have two more to play, I have two big games to play. We’ll see how the conference race ends, but very very happy with the performance we had today.
WKU was firing on all cylinders in all three phases of Saturday’s game. Defensively, the Hilltoppers forced six turnovers, including four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Kendrick Simpkins, Kaleb Oliver, Tre Shaw and TJ Springer all had assists throughout the game while JaQues Evans and Talique Allen picked up fumbles forced by Oliver and Shaw. Evans’ recovery was one of the highlights of the match as he raced 14 yards to the end zone to complete the scoop and score.
Offensively, Austin Reed completed 23 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for an extra score. Two of his touchdown passes were for senior receiver Jaylen Hall, who scored the first touchdown of the game similar to last week’s big win over Charlotte. Fellow senior Daewood Davis also had a big play, taking a 62-yard midfield pass for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Special teams also provided big plays for WKU, including a 46-yard punt return for a touchdown by Hall in the fourth quarter, giving him three scores for the game. Kicker Brayden Narveson was the other scorer for WKU on the afternoon, scoring a 25-yard field goal as time expired in the second half.
Hall finished the day as WKU’s leading receiver with seven catches for 102 yards and two scores. Malachi Corley also had six passes for 90 yards, while Davis had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Michael Mathison caught just three passes on the day but had 75 yards. Running back Markese Stepp made his season debut for the Tops on Saturday afternoon and was the leading running back with 64 yards on eight carries.
Defensively, Derrick Smith finished the game as WKU’s leading tackler with eight. Oliver added seven tackles to his stat line, including an interception and a forced fumble on a tape bag. Evans also threw 1.5 sacks after his scoop and score.
The Hilltoppers will now take a break from the conference to travel to SEC country where the Auburn Tigers await on Saturday, Nov. 19. Kickoff between the Tops and Tigers is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. CT and the game will be nationally televised on SEC Network. .
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