Tyson Helton called it. No matter if Middle Tennessee’s season was a wash or if Western Kentucky’s postseason fate was already sealed, a win against a rival wouldn’t come easy and more than likely would come down to the last five minutes.

It wasn’t until those final moments that the Hilltoppers hit their stride and found a way to indeed make November one to remember.

“Coach said it was going to be a four-quarter game and records don’t matter in a game like this,” WKU receiver Lucky Jackson said. “They’re playing to ruin what we’ve got going on and we had that in the back of our minds.”

Western Kentucky rallied with 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to defeat Middle Tennessee 31-26 in the final game of the regular season. The Hilltoppers finish the year 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA and now await their bowl destination.

WKU ended the season on a three-game winning streak in Helton’s first season as head coach, turning the program around from a three-win team a year ago.

“Certainly a big game for us,” Helton said. “Finished on a good note for the season and having the opportunity to continue on this winning streak.”

The Hilltoppers offense couldn’t get going for three quarters as the Blue Raiders (4-8) took the lead at 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. WKU had its chances to extend a third-quarter lead, but freshman kicker Cory Munson missed two field goals to keep the game close.

Middle Tennessee ran into its own miscues and the Hilltoppers capitalized. A fake punt attempt failed and WKU scored two plays later to retake the lead, then a fumble by Chaton Mobley was recovered by WKU’s Damon Lowe.

Gaej Walker’s touchdown run with 3:28 left put WKU up by 11 and all but sealed the win.

The Blue Raiders benefited from a couple of tipped passes and scored with 43 seconds to go, but didn’t convert the two-point conversion or recover the ensuing onside kick.

Although WKU’s defense had trouble stopping MTSU quarterback Asher O’Hara, who finished with 445 all-purpose yards, it held when it counted late in the game for the momentum the offense needed to put it away.

“Defense did a great job putting us in good positions,” WKU quarterback Ty Storey said. “They’ve done that all year. Our O-line played great today. … At the end of the day, we won the game and everybody is pretty happy.”

WKU had its third highest production on offense with 474 yards, led by Storey’s 23-of-30 passing for 294 yards and two touchdowns to Quin Jernighan and Lucky Jackson, who combined for 12 catches for 186 yards.

Gaej Walker had 119 yards on 14 carries, becoming the first WKU running back since Ace Wales in 2016 to rush for over 1,000 on the season.

Jackson, Jernighan and Storey were part of 13 seniors honored on the field in a downpour before the game. The Hilltoppers have now won nine straight regular-season finales at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“We just hung in there and played for the guys to the left and right of us,” Jackson said. “We played for the seniors and just felt like we had a lot of things to fight for. That was a big boost and motivation to go finish it the right way.”

O’Hara led the Blue Raiders to an early score by using a 28-yard pass down the middle to Chaton Mobely on the first play and then his legs the rest of the way. Middle Tennessee got to the WKU 9-yard line before settling for a 26-yard field goal from Crews Holt.

WKU tied it up on Munson’s chip shot field goal after it ran three unsuccessful plays inside the MTSU 7-yard line.

A half that was pretty even statistically was separated most by a fumbled punt that kept an MTSU drive alive. WKU returner Roger Cray touched the ball on the bounce and the Blue Raiders recovered. O’Hara led a touchdown drive ending in a 17-yard pass to Isiah Upton in the back of the end zone.

WKU finally found life when it was backed up to its own 4-yard line with 5:09 left until halftime. Walker ripped off a 47-yard run down the left sideline and followed it up with a 22-yard run to the MTSU 27. Storey took the honors from there with a keeper on the right side for a 27-yard touchdown run to tie it with 1:25 left.

O’Hara led MTSU in response with a 72-yard drive to retake the lead on another Holt field goal with 30 seconds left in the half for a 13-10 advantage heading into the locker room. The Blue Raiders quarterback had 92 yards on 13 carries in the first half.

“We knew he was a mobile quarterback and a shifty guy,” said linebacker Clay Davis, who finished with 13 tackles and a sack. “We just had to contain him in the pocket and if we’re rushing the passer, not get up past him and counter back.”

The Hilltoppers regained the lead right after halftime with Jackson’s 64-yard touchdown reception from Storey, but they had a harder time extending that lead the rest of the quarter.

WKU pushed the ball inside the red zone twice and came up empty on two Munson field goal attempts. Cray had an interception that put WKU at the 19, but the offense moved just four yards before Munson missed his second attempt of the quarter.

That came back to bite the Hilltoppers when O’Hara threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Jarrin Pierce to take a 20-17 lead at the 12:43 mark of the fourth quarter.

That’s when WKU turned it around with the fourth-down stop on a fake punt. Storey completed a 33-yard pass down the sideline to Jernighan, then found him on the next play on the opposite side of the field for a 3-yard touchdown pass to take the lead.

MTSU was driving into WKU territory on the next possession when Davis forced the fumble that gave WKU the ball back to set up its last touchdown.

“Good football teams, they know when time is starting to dwindle down and you talk about getting to the last five minutes but when it gets to the fourth quarter, you’ve got to kick it into high gear,” Helton said. “I just felt as a team we were really starting to jell and gain momentum, had a big stop on defense and a fake punt we stopped.”

UP NEXT

WKU will wait a week to learn its bowl destination. Conference USA’s bowl tie-ins include the Bahamas Bowl (Nassau, Bahamas), Frisco Bowl (Frisco, Texas), New Mexico Bowl (Albuquerque, N.M.), New Orleans Bowl (New Orleans), Gasparilla Bowl (Tampa, Fla.), Hawaii Bowl (Honolulu) and the First Responders Bowl (Dallas).

“I would love to go to a warm weather bowl and I’d like to play before Christmas,” Helton said, “There’s nothing better than that. That’s not up to us, though. We’ll be happy wherever we go. Our kids will be happy to have the opportunity to play one more game, one more time.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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