LEXINGTON – The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers came up with a play for the ages on a two-point conversion in overtime and stunned the Kentucky Wildcats 32-31 Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
After WKU’s superb junior running back Antonio Andrews scored from the UK 2-yard line to bring the Hilltoppers within 31-30 in OT, senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes tossed a pass on the right side to Andrews, who then threw the ball back to the left side to Jakes, who ran in with the dagger that lifted the Hilltoppers to the victory.
It was a play that would have made Boise State proud.
Western Kentucky improved to 2-1 with the biggest win not only in coach Willie Taggart’s three seasons, but perhaps in the history of the Hilltoppers’ program.
Kentucky falls to 1-2 and heads off to Gainesville, Fla., this coming Saturday for a matchup with a red-hot Florida team. The Gators went into Knoxville earlier Saturday and ripped the host Tennessee Volunteers.
WKU returns home Saturday for a potential trap game against Southern Mississippi.
It looked like Kentucky’s season might escape a trip to oblivion earlier Saturday night when the Wildcats scored last in regulation and first in overtime to seize momentum that was very rare on this night for the blue and white.
UK took over on the WKU 25 to start overtime and scored on a 12-yard run by junior running back Jonathan George. Craig McIntosh’s point-after kick made i, 31-24 Kentucky.
That was the Wildcats’ first and last lead of the night.
And it appeared then that Kentucky saved its season after the Wildcats rallied from a 17-0 first-half deficit to tie the game at 24 in the closing seconds of regulation, thanks to a 77-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes.
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith converted the tying touchdown for Kentucky on a 22-yard pass off a crossing route to freshman wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat with 24 seconds in regulation. McIntosh converted the tying extra point.
The Wildcats started their tying drive from their own 23 with 2:14 left and no time outs.
Smith repeatedly missed open receivers on the drive – a problem he had much of the night – but the Wildcats took advantage of hard running by George and some passes by Smith when UK’s back was square against the wall.
George converted first downs, on runs of two yards and then five yards, on two third-down plays early in the march, setting Kentucky up at the Wildcats’ own 47 with about a minute and a half to play.
The biggest play of the drive, next to George’s tying touchdown, that is, was a pass interference call that involved UK senior wide receiver E.J. Fields.
Facing a third and 10 at its own 47, Fields was running down the middle of the field, wide open, inside the Western Kentucky 20-yard line. Smith threw short and wide of Fields, but the WKU defender on the play ran into the back of Fields, drawing the pass interference flag.
That gave Kentucky a first and 10 at the WKU 38 with 58 seconds to go.
On third and 10, Smith hit redshirt freshman Daryl Collins over the middle for a 16-yard gain to the Western 22.
Smith then hit Sweat on the next play for the touchdown.
Smith was 37 of 60 passing for 332 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw four interceptions and missed wide-open receivers on numerous occasions.
Senior wide receiver La’Rod King had 10 receptions for 84 yards. Sophomore wideout Demarco Robinson added seven catches for 75 yards and George caught six passes for 54 yards.
The biggest thorn in the side of Smith and the Wildcats was sophomore defensive back Jonathan Dowling of Western, who intercepted three passes.
Kentucky had 373 yards of total offense, to 323 for the Hilltoppers.
Jakes was 16 of 22 passing for the winners, with one touchdown and one interception.
Andrews rushed 34 times for 125 yards and three touchdowns for WKU.
The Hilltoppers looked like they were going to bury the Wildcats early, taking advantage of Smith’s three, first-half interceptions to take the 17-0 lead with relative ease.
The WKU scoring started with a 23-yard field goal by freshman place kicker Garrett Schwettman with 5:39 left in the first quarter. That drive was set up by the first of Western’s three first-half picks against Smith.
Smith appeared to be trying to extend the field in the first half, throwing the ball deeper down the field than had been the norm in Kentucky’s first two games. But the plan wasn’t working early.
Most of the time Smith simply missed his target. The rest of the time the UK receivers could not gain separation from the WKU defenders, especially early in the game.
Still, it looked like the Wildcats would get away with some sloppy play early in the game when junior linebacker Avery Williamson of UK intercepted Western senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes near midfield on Western’s next possession, following the Schwettman field goal.
Williamson led all defenders in the game with 14 tackles.
But the Wildcats could not take advantage of his interception.
Early in the second quarter Kentucky moved to the Hilltoppers’ 28 and faced a fourth-and-2 play, but wide receiver Aaron Boyd was tackled short of the first down marker by the aggressive Western Kentucky defenders.
The Hilltoppers then drove 71 yards in 12 plays, taking 6:28 off the clock, and extended their lead to 10-0 on a short touchdown run by Andrews. Schwettman, a Murray High graduate, tacked on the extra point.
Western then nearly put the Wildcats out of their misery when Dowling intercepted Smith at the Kentucky 38 and returned the ball to the Wildcats’ two-yard line.
Andrews carried it in untouched from there, and Schwettman added the point-after for a shocking 17-0 Western Kentucky advantage with just 5:01 to go in the second quarter.
Only then did the Wildcats appear ready to take the fight to the Hilltoppers, responding with a 65-yard touchdown drive in just two minutes, capped by an eight-yard run by George with 3:01 left in the half. McIntosh added the point-after kick to bring Kentucky within 17-7.
Western gained one first down on its ensuing series of offense, giving the ball back to the Wildcats at the UK 34 with just 22 seconds left.
Smith and company chose not to run out the remaining seconds of play in the half, moving 36 yards to set up a 47-yard field goal by McIntosh as the first-half buzzer sounded.
Smith was 16 of 24 passing in the first half, for 127 yards, while Jakes was an efficient 9 of 10 through the air for 92 yards and the one interception.
Andrews rushed 16 times in the first half for the Hilltoppers, gaining 67 yards.
Western had 177 yards of total offense in the half, to 152 for Kentucky.
Western Kentucky did not roll over following Kentucky’s late first-half surge, taking the second-half kickoff and driving 84 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a 13-yard pass from Jakes to sophomore wideout Willie McNeal.
Schwettman’s kick extended the WKU edge to 24-10 with 7:02 left in the third quarter.
But, again, Kentucky came back. The Wildcats drove 84 yards in 12 plays late in the third quarter, scoring on a 15-yard pass from Smith to George to bring the Wildcats back within 24-17.
The game turned back in WKU’s favor on UK’s next offensive series. The Wildcats drove into Western Kentucky territory, thanks in part to two completions from Smith to Fields. On a second-and-6 play at the Hilltoppers’ 36, Dowling again intercepted Smith, but Dowling fumbled and the ball was recovered by UK sophomore offensive lineman Darrian Miller at the WKU 36, giving Kentucky a first down and precious momentum.
Which Smith promptly squandered, throwing a series of passes that were off the mark, most notably on a 4th-and-7 play from the Western 33 that King could not haul in early in the fourth quarter.