Story by Calvin White/ Sports Editor
Murfreesboro, TN- In the 72nd edition of the 100 miles of hate, Western Kentucky hands longtime rival MTSU a 35-17 loss on homecoming night at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium and now leads the all-time series 36-35-1.
Plagued by a combination of offensive struggles and the Hilltopper pass rush, the Blue Raiders mustered just 291 yards of total offense on 77 plays from scrimmage and were 3 of 17 on third down. MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill wants his team to find an identity on offense and as a result, sustain longer drives.
“I’ve always correlated third down with first down,” said Stockstill. “I can look at the stats and see that we were 3 of 17 on third down. I think that we weren’t very good on first down. It just seems like we were second and long and third and long all the time and that’s a direct reflection of not being very productive on first down. We’ve got to establish the line of scrimmage, we’ve got to be more physical, and we have to be more consistent.”
Early on, the Blue Raider defense set up a short field for the offense. Defensive back Teldrick Ross recovered a WKU fumble on a mishandled exchange between Hilltopper quarterback Austin Reed and running back Kye Robichaux on WKU’s first play from scrimmage. The takeaway led to a 14 yard touchdown run from MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham just two minutes into the game.
Western Kentucky’s offense puts up an average of 40 points per game and likes to get the ball out quick which makes them harder to defend. The Hilltoppers use quick throws and screens to produce big plays and take the opponent’s defensive front out of the game.
“They don’t do a lot of tricky stuff,” said Ross. “The main thing is that they’re up tempo. They get people out of place and get them to start playing sloppy. They want you to fall asleep and that’s how they get their big plays.”
On the first play of the second quarter, Reed found Malachi Corley for a three yard Hilltopper touchdown to knot the scoreboard at 7-7.
With 2:39 remaining in the first half, Robichaux found the endzone from 14 yards out to cap off a 10 play, 84 yard drive and give Western Kentucky a 14-7 advantage.
The Blue Raiders received the ensuing kickoff and marched down the field on a 10 play, 57 yard drive in just under two minutes of game time to set up a 34 yard field goal for Zeke Rankin and cut the MTSU deficit to 14-10 entering the halftime break.
A mixture of long drives from WKU and offensive miscues from MTSU allowed Western Kentucky to run away with the game in the second half, outscoring the Blue Raiders 21-7.
WKU put together two more long offensive drives to extend their lead to 28-10 then defensive back Kahlef Hailassie put the nail in the coffin when he intercepted a pass from MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown with 9:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Blue Raiders made an attempt at a late comeback as Cunningham found Izaiah Gathings for an 11 yard touchdown with 5:09 remaining but the WKU offense picked up first down after first down and ran the clock out to secure the victory.