College football is a game of numbers. Western Kentucky won the stats component throughout the day, and they won the counting players contest. Western Michigan stopped a last second, fourth down WKU Hail Mary pass into the end zone. But the Broncos miscounted their defense. They had 12 men on the field. The five-yard penalty gave Western Kentucky just enough yardage for Cory Munson to kick a 52-yard field goal with no time left on the clock. The kick gave the Hilltoppers a 23-20 win over Western Michigan in the Servpro First Responder Bowl in Dallas Monday afternoon.
The Hilltoppers controlled much of the game, but made just enough mistakes, and failed on enough scoring opportunities to keep WMU in the game.
After a very sluggish start for both teams, Western Michigan opened the scoring with a 30-yard field goal from Thiago Kapps 11 minutes into the game.
Western Kentucky answered in the second quarter when quarterback Ty Storey found Jahcour Pearson at the five yard line and he was able to cruise into the end zone for the touchdown. The pass capped an 11 play, 93-yard drive and gave WKU a 7-3 lead. The Hilltoppers added a 26-yard field goal from Munson to expand the lead to 10-3.
Western Kentucky had a chance to put the game away in the first half. WMU quarterback Jon Wassink had his pass intercepted by Kyle Bailey at the WKU 41-yard line. With scoring at a first half premium, a touchdown would have created a huge gap. But Storey gave the ball right back to the Broncos. With just one minute left in the half and the Hilltoppers at the WMU 14, he had his pass intercepted by Kareem Ali and returned 88 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 10-10.
WKU had yet another opportunity, driving into field goal range in under a minute before the end of the half. But Munson missed a 29-yard field goal attempt. The game stayed tied at the half.
Halfway through the third quarter, Wassink found DaShon Bussell on a six-yard slant for the touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
WKU answered in the fourth quarter. Storey pecked his way downfield with a series of quick out passes and slant routes. At the WMU five-yard line, he scrambled to his right and found Lucky Jackson in the back of the end zone. It was a 12 play, 80 yard drive that tied the game at 17.
Western Michigan used a heavy dose of LeVante Bellamy to get to the other end of the field. The Broncos leading rusher had a statistical subpar game for him. He finished with only 60 yards on 18 carries. He picked up 25 of those yards on this drive. That put the Broncos in position for a 20-yard field goal by Kapps. It gave WMU a 20-17 lead with five minutes remaining in the game.
Western Kentucky answered on the back of Storey connecting on multiple passes with Joshua Simon to the tune of 44 yards. It got the Hilltoppers a 31-yard field goal by Munson. That tied the game at 20 with only a minute-and-a-half left.
At the edge of Kapps’ field goal range, on the WKU 30, WMU had a fourth and three with only :27 seconds left. The Broncos opted to go for the first down, instead of pushing the field goal attempt. Wassink’s pass attempt to Gio Ricci fell incomplete and WKU took over on downs at their own 30.
Two passes from Storey got the ball to the WMU 39 yard line. Head coach Tyson Helton went back and forth during a timeout trying to decide whether to let Munson try the 57-yard field goal or go for the Hail Mary pass to the end zone. Munson’s career long was 48 yards. After running Munson out on to the field, he just as quickly put his offense back out. Story threw long into the end zone and the pass was batted down. But WMU had 12 men on the field. After the five-yard penalty, it was time to give Munson a shot. The 52-yarder was so true and had such leg, it would have been good from 57 yards. With no time left on the clock, Western Kentucky got the 23-20 win.
Western Michigan coach Tim Lester took the officials to task for WKU getting the five-yard penalty for too many men on the field. He said WKU had made substitutions on offense. Thus the official should have been standing over the ball while the Broncos made theirs on defense. In the post-game interviews, Lester said, “The officials missed them switching twice and didn’t stand over the ball and give us time to switch out. We’re screaming at Ralph Holley because he’s not in on Victory, which is our Hail Mary defense, but he is in on field goal block, so when they sent the field goal team out there and then switched and didn’t stand over the ball, we were screaming at them, but we couldn’t get his attention, and the ref said, ‘If we did that, then we screwed you,’ and that’s exactly what happened. They gave them that opportunity.”
The numbers wound up with WMU having 12 men on the field, and Munson breaking his personal best for a field goal. But the numbers weighed heavily on WKU’s side all day. Storey finished the game 35 of 51 for 358 and two touchdowns and two interceptions. Lucky Jackson was the biggest benefactor of those efforts with 148 receiving yards on 17 catches. Running back Gaej Walker ran for more than six yards per carry 93 yards on 15 carries. WKU racked up 481 yards of total offense to 307 for Western Michigan.
Western Kentucky finishes the season at 9-4. They lose their starting quarterback, Storey, but only two starters on a defense that was ranked top 25 in the country all season. Western Michigan finishes at 7-6. They will lose 10 starters, (five on offense and five on defense), including Wassink.