Hilltoppers roll to easy win over Rice

Nov. 13—BOWLING GREEN — Western Kentucky's football team doesn't lead the nation in takeaways and defensive touchdowns for nothing.

Both were on vivid display on a cold, dark, blustery Saturday afternoon at Houchens/Smith Stadium, where the Hilltoppers punished Rice 45-10 to become FBS bowl eligible for the 10th time in 11 seasons.

Next Saturday, riding a wave of momentum, WKU (7-4, 5-2 Conference USA) will venture into Southeastern Conference territory and attempt to upset Auburn.

"This is another complete win for us, where we played complementary football the entire game, and I'm proud of everybody on our team," WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. "We have 14 seniors and we celebrated Senior Day the right way, playing the game for each other as a complete unit.

""Our defense was unbelievable once again. We knew it would be important to get turnovers in this game, and we got six of them, so we were opportunistic on both sides of the ball, and our special teams unit was outstanding as well.

"We had the right mindset right from the start, and good things happen when you play with the right mindset."

For the second consecutive week, on the heels of last week's 59-7 rout of Charlotte on the road, Western started fast.

The Hilltoppers needed just five plays to march 75 yards on the game's opening possession — quarterback Austin Reed connecting with wide receiver Jaylen Hall for a 25-yard touchdown pass at 12:58 of the first to make it 7-0.

Early in the second period, the Toppers' Caleb Oliver intercepted a TJ McMahon aerial to set up WKU's second score.

A spectacular 62-yard touchdown pass from Reed to Daewood Davis capped an 11-play, 98-yard drive and pushed the Hilltoppers in front 14-0 at 8:15.

On the Owls' ensuing possession, McMahon, dropping back to pass, was hit by Oliver and fumbled, and Jaques Evans picked up the loose ball and raced 14 yards for another TD that extended the Hilltoppers' advantage to 21-0 at 6:45.

Rice (5-5, 3-3 in C-USA) finally got on the board with 32 seconds remaining in the first half — Uriah West's 1-yard scoring scamper capping a 13-play, 75-yard march that pulled the visitors from Houston within 21-7.

But Western wasn't done. The Hilltoppers drove down the field swiftly and were rewarded with a 25-yard field goal off the foot of Brayden Narveston as time expired to go in front by 17 points at intermission.

WKU forced three turnovers by the Owls in the first 30 minutes, alone, and scored a defensive touchdown.

The Owls opened the second half with a long scoring drive, but were forced to settle for a Christian VanSickle 26-yard field goal, drawing within 24-10 at 7:45 of the third period.

Western extended its lead to 31-10 with just under five minutes to play in the third — Reed scoring on a 1-yard keeper.

Early in the fourth quarter, WKU's special teams unit came up big, with Hall returning a punt 45 yards for a touchdown to push the Hilltoppers in front, 38-10.

Hall scored his third touchdown of the day at 6:16 of the fourth, hauling in a 2-yard scoring pass from Reed, who finished 23-of-33 through the air for 366 yards and three touchdowns, adding a rushing TD.

"Austin did a great job getting the ball to our receivers today, and they knew what to do with it once they got it," Helton said. "Also, great credit to the offensive line. They did not allow a sack and that gave Austin time to find his targets."

Western, which donned helmets featuring the school's mascot "Big Red" for the first time ever, has now forced 30 turnovers in 11 games and has scored six defensive touchdowns — both figures best in America.

After the visit to Auburn, the Hilltoppers close out regular season play on Nov. 26 at Florida Atlantic, coached by former WKU mentor Willie Taggart.