Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers’ football team won their fourth game in a row this season as the defense forced seven turnovers for the impressive 48-21 victory against theMiddle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders in their annual “100 Miles of Hate’’ rivalry game.

The series stands at 35-35-1 with Hilltoppers winning three in a row and six of the last seven.

“Well, the seven turnovers was all the difference,” Hilltoppers’ head coach Tyson Helton said.. “We kind of flipped the script on them, going into this game that’s all we talked about all week. They’re leading the country in creating turnovers and then we go out there and we got seven. That was a fantastic job by our defense and really it was easy offensively most of the night because where the ball position was on the field. The defense did just a fantastic job, and it was just great to see because we were focusing all week on protecting the ball and not giving them the ball and then we came away with seven turnovers which was awesome.”

WKU fell behind early as MTSU scored the first touchdown of the game on their opening possession with freshman Nicholas Vattiato’s 45-yard touchdown pass to sophomore D.J. Chisolm-England for the early 7-0 lead.

The lead was short lived as the Hilltoppers took control of the game. Back to back touchdown drives with graduate senior Bailey Zappe’s 17-yard pass to redshirt junior Daewood Davis and following an interception by redshirt sophomore Khallef Hailasse, Zappe threw a 5-yard pass to freshman Malachi Corley for a 14-7 lead. On the next Blue Raiders’ possession, Vattiato, who threw four interceptions in the 1st Half, was intercepted by redshirt sophomore Beanie Bishop, who returned it 42 yards for a touchdown for a 21-7 lead after one the 1st Quarter.

MTSU pulled to within one score in the 2nd Quarter as Vattiatp threw his second touchdown pass of the game, a

33-yard pass to redshirt junior Yusef Ali, making the score 21-14.

WKU responded with a 35-yard FG by redshirt sophomore Braydin Harveson on their next possession and towards the end of the 1st Half, Bishop’s 33-yard interception return, his second of the game, led to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Zappe to junior Mitchell Tinsley for a 31-14 lead at halftime.

The Hilltoppers took care of all the scoring in the 3rd Quarter to put the game out of reach from the Blue Raiders. Zappe connected for a 28-yard touchdown pass to Davis for their second touchdown connection of the game. Thanks to two consecutive turnovers by the Blue Raiders,giving WKU a short field to work with, Zappe ran for a 8-yard touchdown and Harveston’s 43-yard field goal, his second of the game for a 48-14 lead at the end of three.

During the 3rd Quarter, junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns broke the single season receptions record that was held by Taywon Taylor. Sterns, whose 99th reception broke the record, currently has 104 receptions with at least three games left to play this season.

“It means a lot, but I can’t do it without Bailey (Zappe), Jerreth Sterns said. “I don’t want to say that because he’s feeling himself, but I can’t do it without Bailey. The other receivers we have, they’re just phenomenal playmakers. It just makes it easier on me, and then obviously, the o-line, giving Bailey time to do what he does. But it’s just a tribute to everyone else around me, so it’s a blessing.”

“Players make plays, you know, and some guys have the “IT” factor. It’s not about being the biggest guy, it’s about being a playmaker,” Helton said. “When the lights turn on, he)Sterns) shows up and he balls out and that’s what you’re supposed to do. He has a passion for the game, he’s the hardest working guy out there. But he really owns his craft and all those little details he focuses on those things, and he elevates the players around him. The other receivers play extremely well because he elevates their play as well, so it’s just good to see him week in and week out. And then tonight he broke three or four tackles that should have been tackles for loss, but he turns them in to positive plays. So, all those good things add up at the end of the game and you can look back and say that’s why we win because our players show up and make those plays.”

With a great punt return early in the 4th Quarter, MTSU got on the scoreboard with freshman Frank Peasant 5-yard touchdown run that made the final score 48-21 as the Hilltoppers improved to 5-4 overall for the season and 4-1 in Conference USA.

“I think this was more of a defensive domination tonight. Seven turnovers is outstanding, so offensively where we were getting the ball is more like don’t screw it up,” Hel ton said. “You’ll go out there and score points if you don’t screw it up, so that made it a very easy night for us offensively and that’s what you want to have at the end of the day. If you ask what the perfect game is, I would say the defense goes out there and totally dominates that way because it makes it easy on your offense. When you have a really good offense, the pressure isn’t on them to go out and score every time. And when you get defensive scores like we did tonight that was huge. We just talk all the time about stacking wins and just keep stacking those little wins up and good things are going to happen. As long as we stay in control of our own destiny that’s all that matters.”

WKU outgained MTSU 352 — 349 in total yards of offense. Bailey Zappe completed 29 of his 50 passes for 281 yards for four touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. Jerreth Sterns had a game high of 11 receptions for 110 yards with freshman Noah Whittington had 17 carries for 67 yards.

“It’s a blast to score points, let me tell you. It’s awesome,” Bailey Zappe said. “Going into this game, Middle Tennessee, I believe they were the number one defense in causing turnovers. We watch film, they’re able to cause turnovers on quarterbacks, teams, and offenses that they try to compare to us. To be able to not give them those turnovers like everybody else did and be able to play fundamentally sound and play like we play. Even though there were some mistakes here and there, we’ll clean that up tomorrow. But overall, it’s fun to play in this offense. I’ve been playing in it for four years. I have a lot better guys around me now here and it’s fun.”

Nicholas Vattiato completed 24 of his 41 passes for 205 yards for two touchdowns and threw five interceptions. Frank Peasant had 18 carries for 78 yards for a touchdown with Yusuf Ali having five receptions for 60 yards for a touchdown.

“Congratulations to Western Kentucky. They did a nice job. Obviously, we didn’t play very good,” Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill said.. “You turn it over seven times and you don’t get any, you’re not going to win that game. People probably look and question [Vattiato], but was almost a perfect storm for them. First time quarterback coming in here and he did some good things, but he forced a couple balls and was late on a couple balls. But I believe in that sucker, I believe in him. He’ll learn from this and he’ll continue to get better.”

The Hilltoppers will play at the ‘Rice Owls this Saturday in an important Conference USA game. With a win, WKU will be bowl eligible in consideration to be selected to play in a postseason bowl game.

Kickoff from Houston, TX is at 1 p.m. and WFKN Radio will join the Hilltopper/IMG Big Red Radio Sports Network for the broadcast beginning at noon for the Hilltoppers’ Tailgating Pregame Show.

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