Preseason CUSA favorite Western Kentucky remains unbeaten in league play, but it wasn’t without a challenge.
The Hilltoppers raced out to a 35-7 halftime lead over Louisiana Tech on Thursday night, but the offensive fireworks disappeared once the second half commenced. Louisiana Tech shut out WKU 21-0 in the second half, but the Bulldogs tossed an interception on a potential game-tying drive, leading the Hilltoppers to a 35-28 victory in Ruston, LA.
WKU flew out of the gate to 35 first half points thanks to a lethal connection between quarterback Austin Reed and wide receiver Malachi Corley. Corley finished with roughly 70 percent of Reed’s 297 passing yards on the night, almost owning a monopoly on Louisiana Tech’s secondary.
Fourth in the FBS in receiving yards last year, Corley has been a star for quite some time, but the performance he unleashed Thursday night was extraordinary even by his standards. He produced a career-high 207 receiving yards and three touchdowns on eight receptions. All three of Corley’s touchdowns struck from long distance. The All-CUSA receiver tallied a score of 70 yards in the opening minutes and followed it up with 48 and 29-yard touchdowns in the second quarter. By halftime, Corley racked up 174 yards on just five catches. Quick, explosive drives were a theme for WKU in the first half and three of the Hilltoppers’ five touchdowns stemmed on possessions featuring fewer than four plays.
But after halftime, all remaining points scored at Joe Aillet Stadium belonged to the home team. Louisiana Tech methodically narrowed the deficit, starting in the third quarter when quarterback Jack Turner delivered his first touchdown strike of the night. A real momentum shift was felt on the following possession when the Bulldogs generated a fourth down stop, stifling WKU on a 4th and 2 around midfield.
Four plays after the turnover on downs, Louisiana Tech found itself in the end zone to trim the margin to 35-21 with 3:13 remaining in the third quarter. Neither team could gain any steam offensively after the Bulldogs’ second touchdown after halftime, but the Hilltoppers’ particularly struggled. They suffered four consecutive three-and-outs, providing Louisiana Tech several opportunities to inch closer.
After a turnover on downs near the goal line, Louisiana Tech rebounded to score its final touchdown with 3:13 remaining — courtesy of running back Tyre Shelton, who collected his third consecutive 100-yard showing to go along with two touchdowns. Down seven, the Bulldogs forced WKU to a 4th and 1 after exhausting every timeout. All signs pointed to WKU attempting a quarterback sneak from its own 34-yard line, but a false start by the tight end shifted the ball backward to 4th and 6. As a result of the critical penalty, the Hilltoppers were forced to punt.
Louisiana Tech’s possession to tie or win the game was very short-lived. On the first play of the series, star wide receiver Smoke Harris tripped on the turf and exited the game with an injury to conclude a stellar 11-catch, 117-yard performance. On the second play, Turner threw his second interception of the night which was corralled by WKU cornerback Anthony Johnson Jr. to seal the Bulldogs’ fate.
Louisiana Tech (3-4, 2-1 CUSA) is the first FBS team to play over half of its regular season games. The Bulldogs finally dropped their first conference matchup of the year despite a valiant comeback effort. Louisiana Tech takes the road in another weeknight game next week, battling Middle Tennessee on Tuesday with a chance to rebound to .500.
WKU (4-2, 2-0 CUSA) is one of three unbeaten teams remaining in the conference, sharing that nobility with Liberty and Jacksonville State (which is ineligible for the CUSA title game). The Hilltoppers claimed their first road win of 2023 and they take a brief respite before bringing a two-game win streak into Jacksonville State on Tuesday, Oct. 17.