LEXINGTON — Western Kentucky wanted all or nothing on the grand stage Saturday night.
Welcome to the big leagues, Hilltoppers.
WKU rolled the dice in overtime against Kentucky, using a bit of trickery on a do-or-die two-point conversion attempt and escaping with a historic 32-31 win at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington.
The victory was WKU’s first in 17 tries against a team now in the Southeastern Conference. It was also its first against a non-Sun Belt Conference team from the Football Bowl Subdivision since Division I split into the 1-A and 1-AA subdivisions in 1978.
“We just beat an SEC school,” WKU junior running back Antonio Andrews said. “It feels great. It was a great opportunity, and we showed up.”
After Kentucky (1-2) scored easily to start the overtime period, the Toppers (2-1) answered with a 2-yard touchdown run by Antonio Andrews.
Following a timeout, WKU completed a halfback pass from Andrews to senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, who scrambled into the end zone and sent the contingent in red and white streaking across the field.
“I knew our defense had been struggling in the last part of the game,” WKU coach Willie Taggart said. “They weren’t playing with the same intensity and energy they had earlier in the game, so I told our guys, ‘If we score, we’re going for it all. We’re not going to another overtime.’ ”
The Toppers are 4-0 in overtime games under Taggart. WKU went for two in the first overtime of a victory at Arkansas State two years ago – Taggart’s first season.
“I said, ‘This is what we do,’ ” Taggart said. “We’re the overtime kings. When we go to overtime, we win.”
But were the Toppers surprised? Jakes answered that question over and over with the same response.
“Nah, we play to win,” he said.
The Toppers opened a 17-10 lead at halftime with a strong start from the defense. On Kentucky’s first five possessions, it had three interceptions, a punt and a turnover on downs.
UK sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith entered without an interception this season but started with the three picks, two of them to WKU sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling, who finished the game with three.
Junior cornerback Brett Harrington also had the first interception of his WKU career.
“I challenged our secondary earlier this week,” Jakes said. “We met Sunday, and I don’t think they liked the way I challenged them, but they were out to prove what they’re capable of.”
The Toppers led 3-0 after the first quarter thanks to a 23-yard field goal by freshman kicker Garrett Schwettman – the first of his career – at the 7:17 mark.
WKU led 3-0 after the first frame in last year’s 14-3 loss in Nashville, but never scored again in that contest.
The Toppers didn’t have the same offensive woes Saturday, getting two 1-yard touchdown runs by Andrews in the second quarter.
WKU went 71 yards on 12 plays in more than six minutes on Andrews’ first scoring drive, including six first downs.
A 36-yard interception return by Dowling on UK’s next possession set the Toppers up at the Wildcats’ 2-yard line, and Andrews took it in two plays later to give WKU a 17-0 lead with 5:01 left in the first half.
The secondary thought back to that Sunday conversation with Taggart, Dowling said.
“He said, ‘You all aren’t playing like the Air Force,’ ” Dowling said, referencing the unit’s nickname. “He was right. There were a couple plays at Alabama where we blew coverage and things could’ve done differently. We paid attention to our keys and did everything we had to today.”
But Kentucky’s offense found its rhythm, and the Wildcats scored 10 unanswered points to end the first half.
After his early struggles, Smith completed six straight passes on their next drive, and junior running back Jonathan George finished it with an 8-yard TD run.
UK got the ball back with less than a minute left, and after a crucial roughing-the-passer penalty by WKU that pushed the Wildcats upfield, senior kicker Craig McIntosh nailed a 47-yard field goal as time expired to make it 17-10.
The Toppers outgained UK 177-152 in the first half and controlled the ball for nearly nine more minutes.
“We didn’t do a real good job of throwing and catching,” UK coach Joker Phillips said. “Max, a couple of them got away from him, and you can’t give a good football team a short field, a team like Western, a real good football team that’s just competitive and tough.”
WKU’s clock control swelled early in the third quarter, as it opened with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that lasted nearly seven minutes.
Andrews had seven touches for 48 yards on the possession, and Jakes finished it with a 13-yard TD strike to sophomore receiver Willie McNeal at the 8:02 mark.
Kentucky responded by going 84 yards for a score, as Smith connected with George, who juked two defenders on his way to a 15-yard TD with 3:33 left in the third.
After starting the game 9 of 16 for 49 yards with three interceptions, Smith completed 18 of his next 21 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown.
Dowling picked off Smith for the third time after that but fumbled on the return and UK recovered.
After a turnover on downs and a punt, Kentucky took over with 2:14 to play. The Wildcats went 77 yards in less than two minutes and tied the game at 24 on Smith’s 22-yard pass to freshman receiver DeMarcus Sweat with 24 seconds remaining.
UK went on offense first in overtime and earned a break when WKU was called for a late hit. That took the Wildcats to the Toppers’ 12, and George scored his third TD on the next play.
At that point, WKU had seen enough. It ran a reverse two years ago against ASU for the game-winner, and Saturday’s trickery involved a pass from Andrews back across the field to a waiting Jakes, who made a shoestring catch.
“To beat UK, that’s a blessing right there,” Jakes said. “I’m playing for my teammates and the coaches – playing for everybody that grinds with me every day.”
Andrews finished with 125 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, all career highs along with his 233 all-purpose yards.
Jakes completed 16 of 22 passes for 160 yards with one TD and an interception. Smith finished 37 of 60 passing for UK for 332 yards and two scores with four picks.
The Toppers were outgained 373-323, but maintained possession for nearly 13 more minutes than Kentucky.
WKU hosts Southern Mississippi next, but for now, Taggart was prepared to soak in the historic win.
“It’s huge for our program,” Taggart said. “It shows you how far we’ve come in two years and where we’ve been. We’ve been at the bottom. ... Two years ago, we came up here and they beat the brakes off us. It was time for us to come up here and play like we’re capable of.”
– Look for more in Sunday's print edition.