In what could be considered their signature win of the young season, Western Kentucky defeated Ball State by a score of 33-21 in Bowling Green on Saturday night.
The Tops went to work right away opening the game with a 13 play, 58-yard drive that ended in Mike White finding tight end Deon Yelder for a touchdown from six yards out. Both teams then traded punts before Ball State answered with a one yard touchdown run from Caleb Huntley.
Ball State’s first score was set up by two passes of 41 and 17 yards from quarterback Jack Milas, who started in place of an injured Riley Neal. The Cardinals were also without their primary running back James Gilbert.
Following the first Ball State touchdown, White threw his first of two red zone interceptions in the game at the Ball State 16. The Cardinals where unable to capitalize, however and punted 5 plays later. The ensuing WKU drive resulted in a 40-yard field goal from Ryan Nuss.
The WKU defense caused a three and out on Ball State’s next possession and the Tops’ offense followed it up with a six play, 47-yard drive that ended with a Marquez Trigg two yard touchdown run, his second of the year. That would end the scoring for the first half, but Joel Iyiegbuniwe would force and recover a fumble on the next possession to end a long Ball State drive. At the half, WKU led 17-7.
Both teams traded punts to open the second half before each throwing interceptions. Ball State then cut the deficit with a nine play, 80 yard drive ending with a five yard touchdown run by Malik Dunner. WKU answered on their next drive with another field goal by Nuss, this time from 34 yards out.
Four punts later, Ball State briefly took a 21-20 lead after another rushing touchdown by Huntley at the end of a six play, 59-yard drive, and a made extra point. Western Kentucky took the lead right back with a 76-yard drive that included six straight completions by Mike White and ended with a five yard rushing touchdown by Jakairi Moses. The Tops then went for two, but couldn’t convert.
The Hilltopper defense extended the lead three plays later when senior corner Joe Brown picked off Milas and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown for the first time in his career. The successful extra point made it 33-21 with 1:13 to play. The Cardinals quickly turned it over on downs, however, and Mike White took a knee to end the game.
This was one of those wins where it honestly could have, and probably should have, been an even bigger margin of victory for the Tops. The two red zone interceptions killed promising looking drives. Plus, while Mike White looked significantly more comfortable in the pocket than he has in the last few games, he was still sacked four times and hurried twice by the Ball State pass rush. The Tops’ o-line has now given up 14 sacks, which is the most in Conference USA.
Defensively, WKU fans have to be happy with the clutch plays made by the leaders, notably Iyiegbuniwe and Brown forcing turnovers at critical times. On the other hand, Ball State was able to outgain the Tops 374-371 with a depleted offensive backfield. That made it all the more critical that WKU won the time of possession battle by three minutes (a point Mike Sanford has heavily emphasized in recent weeks) and the Tops improve to 2-2 in 2017. With a bye next weekend, WKU now have two weeks to prepare for their trip to UTEP on October 7th.