MIAMI – Right from the kickoff, Western Kentucky played with an extra edge against Florida International. The Hilltoppers watched three teammates leave the game for injury or late penalties, and it propelled them to preserve a 20-14 win Saturday night.

Freshman tight end Joshua Simon and redshirt freshman tackle Gunner Britton left the game before the fourth quarter with injuries. Linebacker Malik Staples was the victim of an illegal block that left him shaken up on FIU’s final drive.

The Hilltoppers were already working with a depleted roster with running back Jakairi Moses potentially out for the year and defensive back Roger Cray recovering from leg surgery.

Three players leaving the game at FIU on Saturday had the Hilltoppers playing with fire.

“It all started with the kickoff,” defensive end Juwuan Jones said. “Josh Simon got hit when he wasn’t looking. That was messed up and we had to pay them back and then next thing you know, Gunner Britton got crack-backed and Malik Staples, too.

“That put a fire in our butt and we couldn’t retaliate. You can retaliate with your play and not fighting after the whistle.”

Simon went down on the opening kickoff with a stinger, the Daily News learned after the game. His treatment on the field delayed the game several minutes before he walked off on his own power. Head coach Tyson Helton said he showed good signs as the game went on, but the freshman didn’t return to the field.

Simon shined in his freshman debut against Central Arkansas with three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown.

A week after Britton earned the start at left tackle, he and Cole Spencer once again rotated at the position. But Britton left the game after a hit while covering a punt late in the third quarter. He was helped off the field and was on crutches after the game.

Staples was the victim of an illegal block on FIU’s final drive. Panthers running back Napoleon Maxwell led with his helmet and blindsided Staples on the right side of the field blocking for a quarterback run.

The linebacker who transferred from Louisville walked off on his own power but was down for a few moments after the hit.

Those were three hits in the game that added to two other injuries that have hurt the Hilltoppers early.

The Daily News learned Friday that Moses is likely out for the season with another knee injury. The running back missed the 2018 season with an ACL tear and redshirted. Moses went down late in WKU’s first game against Central Arkansas and three receptions for 51 yards.

Add to that was the expectation of Cray to contribute in WKU’s secondary, but he’s out a few more weeks recovering from surgery.

“It’s always motivating when you see one of your brothers go down,” wide receiver Lucky Jackson said. “You always want to put your best foot forward and go out there and play for them.”{&end}

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

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Covering the Western Kentucky University athletics beat for the Bowling Green Daily News.

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