Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor / Editor-in-Chief
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders fell to Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 44-43 in a thrilling, double-overtime game at Floyd Stadium on Saturday. This marks the second consecutive year that WKU has defeated MTSU in the “100 Miles of Hate” rivalry game and the third consecutive game in Murfreesboro between the two schools that’s gone to overtime.
The teams traded blows in the first half, with neither team gaining a significant edge. They entered halftime tied at 20, with Richie James putting on a show in the opening act with seven catches for 97 yards.
Western Kentucky struck first in the second half, as they marched down the field on a 9-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard catch by tight end Shaquille Johnson. Taywan Taylor pulled in a 40-yard catch to put the Hilltoppers in good position to score, Johnson’s grab gave the Hilltoppers a 27-20 lead.
Looking to answer, the Raiders began the next drive inside their own 5-yard line. After moving the ball near midfield, the Raiders faced with a third down with 12 yards to go. The Hilltoppers defensive front brought pressure, but Brent Stockstill avoided two possible sacks and completed a pass to Ty Lee for the first down. The Blue Raiders tied the game a couple plays later on a 38-yard catch-and-run by James, who hauled in his 13th pass of the day. The touchdown capped off a 12-play, 96-yard drive.
The drive seemed to give the defense some energy as they held WKU to a three-and-out. MTSU took over on its own 31. James pulled in his 14th pass of the game for a first down and the Raiders were on the move. Receiver Patrick Smith added a 17-yard pass to push the drive forward. The drive ended abruptly however, as WKU’s Keith Brown picked Stockstill off and returned it to the MTSU 33.
The Hilltopper drive stalled as Reynard Felton sacked WKU quarterback Mike White, who fumbled the ball. The MTSU players tried to scoop the ball and run with it, but it was recovered by Western Kentucky, at the expense of 34 yards. After failing to convert a 3rd down with 40 yards to go, placekicker Skyler Simcox missed a 49-yard field goal, giving possession back to the Blue Raiders.
Running back I’tavius Mathers keyed the next drive with a 41-yard run to get the Blue Raiders into WKU territory. Richie James broke his own school-record with his 15th catch of the day on a third and four for the Blue Raiders, giving them a first down. The 9-play, 60-yard drive ended with Canon Rooker’s third field goal of the day at 25 yards, giving MTSU a 30-27 lead.
The next WKU drive ended almost before it started as White threw an interception to Jeremy Cutrer, giving the Blue Raiders the ball at their own 15 yard-line. Mathers added a 16-yard run to his day, giving MTSU a first down and himself his fourth straight 100 yard rushing game. The Blue Raiders faced a critical fourth down with 1:38 on the game clock, but opted to punt it away, giving Western Kentucky the ball on their own 22.
WKU converted a crucial fourth down and made their way down inside the Middle Tennessee eight-yard line with a 34-yard catch by Taylor. White appeared to get into the endzone to give the Hilltoppers the lead, but further review showed that he was out near the one. MTSU’s defensive line held the Hilltoppers out of the end zone, leaving WKU with a decision. Western chose to go for the tie, kicking a field goal with eight seconds remaining in regulation.
MTSU ran the kickoff out, but didn’t score, sending the game to overtime.
Western Kentucky scored on the first play of overtime to take a 37-30 lead on an Anthony Wales 25-yard touchdown run.
Brent Stockstill completed another pass to James to get the Raiders inside the five, leading to I’tavius Mathers running it in from three yards out. A Rooker extra point tied the game at 37, sending the game to the second overtime.
The Blue Raiders began the second overtime on offense. Mathers carried the ball on the first four plays, getting MTSU to the four yard-line. Stockstill completed a bullet pass to Dennis Andrews for the touchdown. Western challenged the play, but it was confirmed by the officials.
Rooker stepped up to kick the extra point. Normally a routine play, the kick was blocked, leaving MTSU with a 43-37 lead.
WKU took the victory with a touchdown run by Wales, followed by the game-winning extra point, giving the Hilltoppers the 44-43 win.
Rooker had a solid day as a whole, but the only play that many will remember is the extra point that left the Raiders just one point short.
“It sucks, I mean we played a great game,” Rooker said of the extra point. “For the outcome to be like that, it really hurts.”
Richie James ended his day with one of the best stat lines in school history, finishing with 16 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns. With that in mind, the receiver felt his team was so close in this game, but fell just a little short.
“If we had made one more play, we probably would’ve won,” James said. “Obviously it came down to the last play and they [the defense] did what they could.”
Stockstill ended the game completing 42 of his 54 pass attempts for 434 yards and three touchdowns, but he took the interception pretty hard after the game.
“I made a bad throw… and it cost us the game,” Stockstill said.
Head coach Rick Stockstill followed up at the podium, saying that a loss like this doesn’t fall on just one players shoulders.
“[Brent] didn’t lose that game,” Coach Stockstill said, regarding his quarterback’s comments. “That’s the type of person he is… I’m extremely proud of our team.”
Coach Stockstill maintained that despite how tough this loss was, this is not the end for this team.
“All of our goals are still out there,” he said. “This one hurts today, but [we will] man up and get up and come back tomorrow.”
MTSU will travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the University of Missouri Tigers next Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. and can be seen on the SEC Network.
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