For the first time as a member of FBS, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are football champions of their conference after taking complete and total control of the game in the second half en route to a 45-28 win to take the 2015 Conference USA championship.
Southern Miss won the opening coin toss and elected to defer - smart - but the first drive of the game ended when Nick Mullens threw a third down pass right into the hands of Branden Leston, who set the Hilltoppers up with stellar field position.
Mullens with a gimme interception. Not a good start. WKU ball on the 28.
— Jeremy Adcock (@cfoutpost) December 5, 2015
It didn't take long for the Tops to capitalize, and after a couple of shots to the end zone, Brandon Doughty finally connected with Antwane Grant from five yards out to give WKU the first lead of the day at 7-0.
From that point, Southern Miss notched 21 straight points to close the first quarter and open the second. A poor Hilltopper punt (which was a theme in the first half) set the Eagles up at the Tops 45, and five plays later Jalen Richard tied the game at 7-7 with a two yard touchdown run.
Southern Miss opened the scoring in the second quarter as well, but before the Eagles got into the end zone, WKU's Wonderful Terry stone cold stopped USM's Michael Thomas, forcing him to do...uh...this before play resumed.
WKU’s Wonderful Terry made the hit but the result wasn’t wonderful for USM’s Michael Thomas (He did make the catch) pic.twitter.com/Ff6VDALhUr
— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) December 5, 2015
Yeah, nastay. Thomas would have to leave the field momentarily, but he'd get the last laugh as he caught a five-yard pass from Mullens, giving the Eagles their first lead of the day at 14-7.
WKU looked to answer, and try to find some momentum or offensive rhythm for really the first time in the half, and on third down, Doughty rushed a pass down the field and it fell into the hands of Kalan Reed, who took it to the house to give the Eagles a 21-7 lead.
But the Tops wouldn't go down without a fight. Doughty engineered the longest drive by number of plays for WKU all year, with a 19 play drive that spanned 75 yards and took 6:54 off the clock and ended with a Doughty touchdown run...yes, you read that right...to cut the game to a one-score affair.
Before the half came to an end, the Tops were able to get the ball back with 1:11 to play in the half, but were pinned at their own three yard line. Southern Miss called timeout on first and second down, thinking they'd get the ball with solid field position for a chance to add points before half time, but a key third down conversion sparked a 97-yard touchdown drive by the Tops to tie the game at 21-21 before halftime.
Despite ending the first half with the two scores, the Tops couldn't come out firing in the second half, after their opening drive of the third quarter ended in a punt. And, despite giving up two last-minute scores in the first half, Southern Miss came out with the fire, putting the first points of the half on the scoreboard following a 37-yard Ito Smith touchdown run re-giving the Golden Eagles a 28-21 advantage.
However, that would prove to be the final time Southern Miss would cross the goal line. On WKU's next drive, a Garrett Schwettman 37-yard field goal brought the Tops within 28-24, and a 39-yard touchdown pass from Doughty to Taywan Taylor gave WKU a 31-28 lead that the Tops would never relinquish.
Mullens struggled mightily in the second half, throwing two more interceptions in the back two quarters of football, both of which lead to WKU points. D'Andre Ferby put the exclamation point on the afternoon - twice - by rushing for the final two scores of the game, leading to WKU's final victory margin of 45-28.
It was truly a tale of two halves - the first half saw Southern Miss' defense be the best unit on the football field, while the second half saw WKU's defense become the dominant force.
In his final game at Smith Stadium, Doughty tossed for 410 yards on 34-52 passing, throwing three touchdowns and the first-half pick-six. Mullens, on the other hand, had a reversal in the TD/INT category, and threw for 181 yards on 15-30 through the air.
Taylor had himself a day, hauling in two more touchdown catches in a record-breaking season and career, and caught eight total passes for 165 yards.
With the win, WKU improves its already FBS-best record to 11-2, and await their bowl destination. As does Southern Miss, who fall to 9-4. Congrats to both the Hilltoppers and Golden Eagles for a much more entertaining football game than the 45-28 score might suggest, and since I'm the resident Hilltopper on staff, I feel a hefty GO TOPS is in order.