The Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State football rivalry has produced memorable football games over the years, and last Saturday's game at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tennessee added another chapter to the rivalry.
With both teams needing a win to stay in the hunt for Conference USA's Eastern Division top spot and keep their hopes of competing for the conference championship game alive, the Hilltoppers needed double overtime with a blocked extra point to defeat the Blue Raiders, 44-43.
Western Kentucky improves to 2-1 in conference play, 4-3 overall and is two wins away from becoming bowl eligible for the for the fifth straight season. Middle Tennessee drops to 2-1 in conference play and 4-2 overall for the season. This was the 66th matchup between Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. With the Hilltoppers' victory, they have won back-to-back games over the Raiders for the first time since 1979 and 1980.
"It was a very back-and-forth game between two teams that are battle-tested, that play a good schedule and were fighting until the very end," said Hilltoppers head coach Jeff Brohm. "We were fortunate in this one to come out on top and it was a complete team effort all the way down to the blocked extra point. That's how small the difference in winning and losing is. I tell our team that all of the time. There is a lot of parity across the league and across college football. You've got to do the small things in order to get an edge."
With both teams scoring field goals in the first quarter for a 3-3 tie, both offenses flexed their muscles in the second quarter as the Blue Raiders took the lead back with a 10 play, 75 yard touchdown drive as redshirt senior I'tavius Mathers ran for a one yard touchdown. Redshirt junior Canon Rooker kicked the extra point for a 10-3 lead.
The Hilltoppers responded with back-to-back touchdown drives. Redshirt senior Anthony Wales's one-yard touchdown run capped off a 12 play 60 yard drive with Skyler Simcox's extra point tied the game at 10-10. Then following a 41-yard field goal by Rooker, Western Kentucky took the lead with redshirt junior Mike White's 45 yard touchdown pass to senior Taywan Taylor. Simcox's extra point gave the Hilltoppers a 17-13 lead.
The Blue Raiders took the lead back with redshirt sophomore Richie James' 28 yard touchdown pass from redshirt sophomore Brent Stockstill that finished off a six play, 75 yard drive. Rooker kicked the extra point giving Middle Tennessee a 20-17 lead.
But the Hilltoppers tied the game heading into halftime as Simcox made a 52 yard field goal, his career long, making the score 20-20. The 52-yard field goal was his second of 50 plus yards this season. He became the third kicker in program history with two 50 yards or more made kicks in a career and the second with two 50 yards or more made field goals in a season.
Western Kentucky regained the lead late in the third quarter as senior Shaquille Johnson caught a four-yard pass from White and with Simcox's extra point, the Hilltoppers led 27-20.
Middle Tennessee tied the game early in the fourth quarter as James caught his second touchdown pass of the game from Stockstill as the two connected on a 38 yard catch and run that capped off a 12 play, 96 yard drive. With Rooker's extra point, the game was tied once again at 27-27.
Rooker kicked a 25 yard field goal with 3:48 left to play for a 30-27 lead but Simcox kicked an 18 yard field goal with five second leftin regulation that tied the game at 30-30 to head into overtime.
On the very first play in overtime, Wales ran for a 25 yard touchdown, his second of the game, and with Simcox's extra point gave the Hilltoppers a 37-30 lead. But right back came the Blue Raiders as they tied the game at 37-37 with Mathers' three yard touchdown run, his second of the game. Rooker kicked the extra point tying the game to head into a second overtime.
Middle Tennessee took the lead in the beginning of the second overtime, 43-37, as redshirt senior Dennis Andrews caught a five yard touchdown pass from Stockstill but Rooker's extra point was blocked as the elevation on his kick was not high enough.
With the momentum on their side, Western Kentucky tied the game with Wales' third touchdown run of the game as he ran for an one yard touchdown. Simcox's extra point was not pretty but crept inside the left goal post for the crucial 44-43 double overtime victory over Middle Tennessee State.
This was the 66th matchup between Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. With the victory, the Hilltoppers improved to 13-19-1 all-time in games played in Murfreesboro and 31-34-1 all-time in the series. The last three matchups in Murfreesboro have gone to overtime, including a 36-33 win in 2011 that went to double overtime and a 50-47 Middle Tennessee win in 2014 that went to triple overtime.
"We've lost some close ones so we could have very easily said here,as it goes, it's going to happen again. I'm not going to lie that sometimes creep into your head but I tried to preach to our team at half to stay in the moment," said Brohm. "You can't worry about the score, you can't worry about what could happen at the end. Just stay in the moment, play one play as hard as you can, don't think about anything else other than doing your job and I think if you do that it helps you relax and concentrate a little better and you get good results."
"I'm proud of how hard the team competed today. That was a good college football game. We missed that extra point but that's not the reason we lost. I feel bad for our players. They left everything out there today. I'm disappointed we couldn't find a way to get it done," said Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill. "They're a good football team. I'm just disappointed because these guys gave everything they had. We've been on other end of these overtime games too. There's a lot of pain and hurt in this locker room right now, and I feel bad for them because they played their hearts out today."
Mike White completed 29 of 40 passes for 391 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. It was his second-straight game with 300 or more yards and his third of the season. His interception was the first since the third quarter against Vanderbilt. Anthony Wales had a career-high 27 carries for season-highs of 158 yards and three touchdowns. It was his second game this season of 150 yards or more and the fourth of his career. Taywan Taylor had a career-high of 12 receptions for 197 yards while adding a touchdown. It was his fifth game this season of 100 yards or more receiving and the 15th of his career.
The Hilltoppers returns home to celebrate Homecoming when they host the Old Dominion Monarchs in a key conference matchup in the Eastern Division. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. and 1220 WFKN Franklin will join the Hilltopper/IMG Big Red Radio Sports Network for the broadcast beginning at 5 p.m. with the Hilltopper Tailgaiting Pre-Game Show.