BOWLING GREEN — Defense proved supreme once again for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
WKU scored two defensive touchdowns in a span of 17 seconds early in the third period and went on to defeat visiting Florida International 38-21 in a Conference USA football game on an unseasonably warm Saturday at Houchens/Smith Stadium.
The Toppers (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) completed the home portion of their 2020 schedule with their 10th consecutive Senior Day victory.
“This is the way to close things out at home — we’re very excited to get this victory,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “We played good team football and got clicking on all cylinders today, and that’s what we’ve been working toward the entire season. We finally put everything together.”
Western scored 35 unanswered points between the second and fourth quarters, but no sequence was bigger than the one that produced back-to-back defensive scores.
The Hilltoppers, who fell behind by 10 points early on, took their first lead of the game at 9:25 of the third when defensive end DeAngelo Malone forced a fumble by FIU quarterback Max Bortenschlager and cornerback Roger Cray collected the ball and raced 19 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-13.
Then, on the first play of the Panthers’ ensuing possession, linebacker Eli Brown intercepted a Bortenschlager pass and returned the ball 22 yards for another stunning TD — pushing the Hilltoppers in front 24-13 at 9:08.
“Those two defensive scores were obviously huge for us,” Helton said. “That changed the game’s momentum completely and we just took it from there — we’ve been looking for those kinds of plays all season.”
WKU essentially iced it with a pair of fourth-quarter scores.
Running back Gaej Walker scored from two yards out early in the period and quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome scored from four yards out at 9:23 to stretch the Hilltoppers’ lead to 38-13.
FIU (0-5, 0-3) tacked on a touchdown run and conversion run by third-string quarterback Kaylan Wiggins inside the final 20 seconds, but it was far too little, far too late for the Panthers.
WKU started sluggish, however, and FIU capitalized.
J.J. Holloman snared a 28-yard scoring pass from Bortenschlager at 8:40 of the first period to provide FIU a 7-0 lead.
Bradyon Narveson got WKU on the board with a 39-yard field goal at 10:33 of the second, but seconds later the Panthers extended their advantage to 13-3 when EJ Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Just before the end of the first half, Pigrome scored from a yard out to pull WKU within three at intermission.
WKU’s Walker led all rushers with 127 yards on 17 carries, and Pigrome was 14-of-25 through the air for 125 yards. Pigrome has now attempted 237 passes this season without throwing an interception.
The Hilltoppers will be looking for their third consecutive victory on Saturday when they close out the regular season at Charlotte (CBS Sports Network).