*Correction: This article originally stated that Joey Beljan had exited the transfer portal. Beljan is still in the portal, but chose to play on Wednesday.
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have now won three bowl games in four trips to the postseason under Tyson Helton.
WKU earned Conference USA’s second win of the 2022 bowl season on Wednesday when they defeated South Alabama 44-23 in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The Tops pick up their ninth win of the season while South Alabama suffered just their third loss of the year in what was, otherwise, the program’s best FBS season.
How It Happened
Western Kentucky came out aggressive with touchdown passes from Austin Reed on each of their first two possessions. The Tops missed a field goal attempt from Cory Munson on their third drive. Regular kicker Brayden Narveson was unable to play and could be seen on the sideline in a walking boot during the game. The Tops’ defense also kept South Alabama’s offense scoreless in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, after WKU stopped USA on fourth down, they quickly scored their third touchdown on a trick play where Dalvin Smith threw a pass to fellow receiver Jaylen Hall in the end zone. Munson would hit a 23-yard field goal with 9:23 remaining in the half to extend the lead.
Western Kentucky OC Ben Arbuckle in his damn bag on this one… Austin Reed to Dalvin Smith to Jaylen Hall for six in the New Orleans Bowl pic.twitter.com/uz6NcXx26C— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) December 22, 2022
The highlight of the first half for South Alabama was a one-handed interception by Yam Banks in the end zone to keep the Tops from going up 30.
South Alabama would finally get on the board with a 30-yard field goal with just under two minutes before half time. To end the first half, the Tops went on a ten-play, 75-yard drive that ended with an untimed down that resulted in a touchdown for Malachi Corley.
An injury to Jaguars’ leading receiver Jalen Wayne kept him out of the second half after catching two balls for 22 yards.
The Jaguars would put together their second scoring drive early in the third quarter with a two-minute, 75-yard drive that ended in a Carter Bradley touchdown pass to DJ Thomas-Jones. WKU would answer shortly after with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Corley from Reed, yet again. Munson also hit a 31-yarder with five minutes remaining in the third.
Carter Bradley would improvise a touchdown with a shovel pass to La’Damian Webb, who took it in from five yards out to cut the Tops’ lead slightly.
The fourth quarter wouldn’t be nearly as exciting with just an additional Munson field goal and one more USA touchdown from Bradley to Devin Voisin, who made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in coverage.
Just A Quick Dip In The Portal...
WKU’s efforts on Saturday were led by several players who briefly tested the transfer portal just before the bowl season.
Austin Reed set a New Orleans Bowl record for pass yardage with 497 on 36 completions out of 55 attempts. Reed finished with four touchdowns and one interception a few days after announcing he would return to WKU for the 2023 season.
Linebacker JaQues Evans, who withdrew from the portal three days ago, finished with six tackles, a sack, and 2.5 TFLs, in this contest.
Tight end Joey Beljan, who is still in the portal, but is inching toward a decision on where he will play next year, had three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in this game.
By keeping many of their team’s leaders from this year and adding an additional year of familiarity with Tyson Helton and company’s systems, the Tops have seemingly set themselves up nicely for the offseason.
Moving On Despite Disappointment
There’s plenty to be happy about if you’re a South Alabama fan when you look at the season. Ten wins is still the most the program has had at the FBS level. Quarterback Carter Bradley passed for 360 yards, which was a USA bowl game record. Webb (1,063) became South Alabama’s single-season rushing leader passing Tra Minter’s previous mark of 1,057 set during the 2019 season. Yam Banks’s interception brought him to six on the season, which was a new program record.
On Wednesday night, however, it came down to execution, especially in the early going, and Western Kentucky was simply better.
USA head coach Kane Wommack: “We did not come out of the well, we did not call it well, and we did not execute well. And when you look at that, there’s a complete loss that you can point to nobody other than the head coach. So, that game is on me. I did not have this team prepared. And those are things, you look at the growing pains of our program...There will be a time to reflect on some of the things that we did well, but not tonight.”
“We need to reflect and feel the weight of this loss and learn from it.”