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Big Second Half Propels Western Kentucky to Rivalry Win at MTSU

The Tops took down the Blue Raiders 35-17 in Murfreesboro.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers V UTSA Roadrunners Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers won the 600th game in program history on Saturday when they beat rival Middle Tennessee in the rivalry affectionately known as “100 Miles of Hate.” The Tops have now won that matchup seven of the last eight times.

History aside, the Hilltoppers have improved their record to 4-3 overall and 2-1 in Conference USA. The Blue Raiders are now 3-4 overall and 0-3 in C-USA.

In the first half, the Hilltoppers got off to a slow start, waiting until the second quarter to get on the board. By that time, MTSU had taken an early lead with a 14-yard rushing touchdown by Chase Cunningham on their first possession. WKU were able to tie it up with a Malachi Corley touchdown catch that came at the end of a six play, 62 yard drive. A few possessions later, Kye Robichaux ran in a 14-yard touchdown to take the lead.

Just before the conclusion of the first half, Zeke Rankin kicked a 34-yard field goal to make it 14-10 in favor of the Tops.

In the second half, the Tops outscored MTSU 21-7. That included a one-yard rushing touchdown by quarterback Austin Reed, a passing touchdown to tight end Joshua Simon, and a pick six by freshman defensive back Darius Thomas.

Simon is now tied for the second-most touchdowns by a tight end in program history with 12. Simon was also named to the Comeback Player of the Year Award Watch List earlier this week as well.

Chase Cunningham threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Gathings to get one back for MTSU with about five minutes left. That would be the final score of the night, however.

Other notable performances from this game included ten catches for 100 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets for WKU receiver Malachi Corley, and seven tackles with 2.5 TFLs. 2 pass breakups, and a forced fumble by defensive back Kahlef Hailassie. MTSU safety Tra Fluellen also had 11 tackles alongside his interception of Reed in this contest.

Postgame, Tyson Helton seemed happy with the offensive performance in the second half, but was noticeably frustrated with his team’s sloppy play at certain moments throughout the game. That included two lost fumbles, an interception, and three turnovers on downs.

“We needed to go out there and make a statement, and get momentum back in our favor, and let everybody take a deep breath,” Helton said of the second half improvement. “It’s hard for the defense or go out there, series after series when you’re not doing anything offensively. It puts a lot of pressure on them, so it allowed our defense to take a deep breath and relax and little bit. Again though offensively we have a lot of talent and we have high expectations for those guys. I just felt like we were hot and cold. And we have a good UAB team coming in next week, so we have to be hitting on all cylinders.”

On the other side, Rick Stockstill noted his own team’s offensive woes and missed opportunities in their third conference loss of the year.

“You got to give them credit,” Stockstill noted. “They were better than us today. I’m disappointed we never formed an identity offensively. It was sporadic at best. We’d get something going and then shoot ourselves in the foot. We weren’t very good on third down. We weren’t consistent enough to stay on the field. Our defense did some better things than we have the past couple of weeks. We kept the ball in front of us and came up with three turnovers and we were sound in the kicking game. You just have to score points against a team like that.”

Western Kentucky continue their season on Friday, October 21, when they host UAB. Middle Tennessee will look to pick up the pieces heading into an idle week and then head to UTEP for a game in the Sun Bowl on October 29.