Mike Sanford said in his presser last week that his Western Kentucky Hilltoppers needed to find a way to finish games in order to get wins. While they didn’t start particularly well against the Ball State Cardinals on Saturday, the Tops finished strong to improve to 1-3 on the year with a 28-20 win.
On their first possession of the game, Ball State opened the scoring as Riley Neal engineered an 80-yard scoring drive to put the Cardinals up a touchdown. WKU, on the other hand, started the game with three straight punting drives before tying the game up with a Gino Appleberry rushing TD set up by a 41-yard reception by Lucky Jackson.
Ball State retook the lead shortly after with a 43-yard field goal on the next possession. Ball State took a 10-7 lead into halftime.
The Cardinals added another field goal on their first possession of the second half. The Tops made a change at quarterback at the beginning of the third quarter as starter Davis Shanley showed signs of pain in his throwing shoulder on the sidelines. Steven Duncan entered the game and led the Tops on a 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a shovel pass TD to Mik’Quan Deane.
Tops took a 14-13 lead on this Shanley to Deane inside pass pic.twitter.com/01ULQf8yVf— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
Ball State would get their final score of the day thanks to Neal finding Corey Lacanaria from six yards out. WKU would go ahead on the next drive on a drive that was helped along by a first down completion to Jacquez Sloan and a roughing the passer penalty. Steven Duncan would cap the drive off by find Deane for an 18-yard touchdown score.
Another look shows Deane doing an impressive job to secure the catch and stay inbounds pic.twitter.com/LbF5lWeXV1— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
The WKU defense forced a three-and-out on the following Ball State possession. WKU running back Joshua Samuel stood out on the Tops final possession that went 70-yards as Samuel punched it in from five yards out to make it 28-20. WKU kept BSU out of the end zone on the final possession to secure the win.
WKU’s quarterback situation is a puzzler at this point. Shanley looked good last week against Louisville and decent in the first half of this game. The redshirt freshman was 13 of 19 in the first half with 158 yards through the air and 16 yards on the ground. When he came out of the game though, Steven Duncan played like he wanted to make up for getting pulled against Louisville. He did so with the two passing touchdowns and a few key scrambles that put the Tops in great shape to score points. One of those was a 27-yard run: the first run of over 20 yards the Tops have had since Mike Sanford took over.
Neither defense forced a turnover, but WKU’s defense were a big part of why they were able to finish this game. Keeping Ball State out of scoring range on their last two possessions are a testament to that. Ben Holt and Ta’Corian Darden led the way on that front with 12 tackles each. WKU also deflected seven of Neal’s passes, sacked him once, and hurried him six times.
Mike Sanford also noted after the game that he was impressed with how the offensive line has responded to criticism in the last few weeks. The rushing game has been remarkably better with 362 rush yards combined in the last two games and save for a one or two plays, Ball State’s pass rush didn’t give WKU QBs too much of a problem.
The extent of WKU’s recent improvement will really be tested next week with the 2-1 Marshall Thundering Herd in town to open up conference play in the latest installment of the Moonshine Throwdown.