"Nothing was going through my mind, I was just thinking about making a play for the team and I had the opportunity and made the most of it," Juwan Gardner said following Western Kentucky's 66-51 victory over Old Dominion.
The (2-4, 0-3) Hilltoppers, heading into their game against Old Dominon, had been notorious for giving up big leads in football games. In each of their 4 previous losses, Western Kentucky had a lead of at least six points in the second half. As Western Kentucky went to the locker room with a 42-30 lead, you could feel the skepticism in the crowd of 17,886 at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.
They'd seen this story before. Up 13 points at half against UAB: WKU finds a way to lose; up 31-14 at FAU at half: WKU finds a way to lose. Old Dominion shortened the lead to just five points three times in the third quarter, but each time WKU seemed to respond.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, with a five point lead, Brandon Doughty and the hot Topper offense were (unsurprisingly) moving down the field with ease. Late in the drive, tight end Mitchell Henry was stripped at the goal line after catching a long pass from quarterback Brandon Doughty; Old Dominion now with the ball at their own 26 and a chance to take the lead.
Here we go again, I thought to myself, sitting on the edge of my seat, section 105. The determined Old Dominion offense methodically torched the Hilltopper defense as they had done all day; Taylor Heinicke and company now down to the WKU 4 yard line with just over 9:00 remaining. Score a touchdown: take a lead over WKU for the first time of the game.
As Taylor Heinicke lined up in shotgun, the Western Kentucky defense struggled to get lined up. Linebacker Nick Holt was trying to direct his teammates in the right position.
As Heinicke attempts to pass, the ball slips out of his hands, and redshirt freshman DB Juwan Gardner snatches the ball and quickly charges down the field.
'Is there a holding call? A pass interference call? Or did Western Kentucky actually do it?,' I thought to myself.
Touchdown Hilltoppers and no penalty markers visible. Juwan Gardner, the young defensive back out of duPont Manual High (KY), gave his team a two scored lead with 8:54 remaining. After a defensive stop and a Garrett Schwettman field goal, the HIlltoppers (now 3-4, 1-3) won their first conference game, 66-51 over Old Dominion.
With postseason hopes rejuvenated, The Hilltoppers (3-4, 1-3) will travel to Louisiana Tech (5-3, 4-0) next week with a chance to prove they can compete with the top of the conference.