The Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers’ football team celebrated Senior Day on the Hill by honoring their seniors in football but in cheer, dance and marching band with a 52-17 victory over the Florida Atlantic Owls.

“Just a great team win today, I was really proud of all our seniors, this being their last home game, just a great way for those guys to go out at home,” Hilltoppers’ head coach Tyson Helton said. ”We just gotta keep rolling, keep it going, but a really good win with a really good team effort. There were also a lot of big plays out there today.”

Western Kentucky won their sixth consecutive game, improving their record overall to 7-4 and 6-1 in Conference USA while Florida Atlantic lost their third consecutive game, falling to 5-6 overall and 3-4 in conference play.

“The 1-4 start brought us all together,” Helton said. “When you’re not winning it shows the true character of a football team and I think that drew us even closer together. You all have heard me say this a lot, we never blinked, and we didn’t. I think everybody knew their strengths and weaknesses; we knew what we needed to fix. But it just drew us a lot closer together and now we’re starting to see the benefits of that and we just have to keep that momentum going now.”

Western Kentucky saw a very familiar face who is a Hall of Famer as former Hilltopper quarterback, offensive coordinator and head coach Willie Taggart is the head coach for Florida Atlantic.

The Hilltoppers scored on five of their seven offensive possessions in the 1st Half. Graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe threw four 1st Half touchdowns to four different receivers. He threw a 1-yard pass to junior Jerreth Sterns and an 8-yard pass to junior Mitchell Tinsley as they led 14-3 at the end of the first.

In the 2nd Quarter, Zappe threw a pair of 3-yard touchdown passes to redshirt sophomore Joey Beljan and to freshman Malachi Corley. WKU’s defense bent but did not break against Florida Atlantic’s offense but the Owls’ defense stepped up to score their first touchdown of the game as redshirt sophomore Teja Young returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown. Redshirt Brayden Harveson, who converted all four extra point attempts, kicked a 26-yard field goal that made the score 31-10 at halftime.

Both teams exchanged touchdowns in the 3rd Quarter as the Owls scored on their opening possession with a 9-yard pass from graduate N’kosi Berry to redshirt senior John Mitchell and the Hilltoppers got a 27-yard pass from Zappe to Tinsley for his second touchdown catch of the game that made the score 38-17 after three.

WKU finished off Florida Atlantic in the 4th Quarter as Zappe threw his sixth touchdown pass of the game with a 7-yard pass to Beljan for his second of the game. Redshirt sophomore Jakari Moses finished off the game with a 3-yard touchdown run as the Hilltoppers rolled to a 52-17 victory for their final regular season home victory on Senior Day.

The Hilltoppers outgained the Owls 608-301 yards in total offense. Zappe completed 39 of his 49 passes for 470 yards for six touchdowns with two interceptions.

“Like I was telling a few people earlier, this has been the best year of my life, no doubt,” Bailey Zappe said. “This was by far the best decision I have ever made to come be here and be a part of this program playing for Coach Helton. That has been something that has really shaped out to be great for me, Jerreth, and the two other guys who came with us. I can say this every day, this has been the best year of my life and to be able to play with these guys is something that I will remember forever. And what we have been able to do on the offensive side is something that will go down in the history books, so it has been awesome. We still have three more games, so we have a lot more work to be done.”

Tinsley had nine receptions for 164 yards for two touchdowns and Sterns had 12 receptions for 143 yards for a touchdown. Freshman Noah Whittington had nine carries for 46 yards and Moses had four carries for 33 yards for a touchdown.

“Mitchell Tinsley is Mr. King of Contested Catches,” Jerreth Sterns said. “But I just think when you have an outside receiver that’s a threat like that it makes it really hard to stop an inside receiver. Like you all said, pick your poison, who do you want to stop? If you want to stop me, Mitch is going to go crazy. If you want to stop Mitch, then I’m going to go crazy.”

WKU’s defense forced three interceptions from Florida Atlantic as Berry completed 19 of his 29 passes for 213 yards with a touchdown with two interceptions. Redshirt sophomore Je’Quan Burton had seven receptions for 80 yards and redshirt sophomore Johnny Ford had 13 carries for 54 yards.

The Hilltoppers will try to wrap up the Eastern Division in Conference USA and a spot in the conference championship game with their regular season finale at the Marshall Thundering Herd. The winner of the game will be the Eastern Division Champions.

“I love the position we’re in,” Mitchell Tinsley said. “I mean, I love being able to control our own destiny. Honestly, we wouldn’t be in this position without all of our teammates. We have a good receiving core, good o-line, and good running backs. They all make us who we are anyway, so I have to give them credit too. But we’re going to just keep doing what we do.”

Kickoff from Huntington, WV is Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. WFKN Radio will join the Hilltopper/IMG Big Red Radio Sports Network for the broadcast beginning at 1:30 p.m. for the Hilltoppers’ Tailgating Pre-Game Show.

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