Western Kentucky started hot, then faded. And the FCS opponent took home a paycheck and a win from Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Sound familiar?

Tyson Helton’s first game as WKU’s football coach began with excitement and collapsed into a 35-28 loss to Central Arkansas on Thursday. The Bears from the Southland Conference outscored WKU 21-0 in the fourth quarter with big plays the Hilltoppers’ secondary couldn’t answer.

And thus WKU’s season starts on a losing note for the second straight season to a team it paid to play. WKU lost its 2018 home opener to Maine after holding a sizable lead in the first quarter.

An offseason to prep for Central Arkansas looked promising when WKU opened with touchdowns its first two drives. But the offense sputtered down the stretch and the Bears’ passing attack torched the Toppers. UCA returns home $325,000 richer and with a win in front of an announced 17,120 to see Helton’s team. The Hilltoppers will try again next week with an early Conference USA game against FIU.

“There were a lot of things I’m proud of tonight,” Helton said after the game. “Hopefully our fan base sees that. I would be disappointed too as a fan if we lost. I’m not worried about FCS, Division I – a game is a game.”

Bears quarterback Breylin Smith completed 20-of-28 pass attempts for 324 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Carlos Blackman had an 80-yard halfback pass to Lujuan Winningham in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 28-all with 9:59 to go.

Smith made two big completions that set up Blackman’s go-ahead touchdown run with 6:51 left.

Quarterback Steven Duncan and the Hilltoppers’ offense could hardly move the ball after it built a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter. While the Bears marched back, WKU’s offense couldn’t finish drives by going 1-of-5 on third down in the final quarter and two failed fourth down conversion attempts.

“When you get in the fourth quarter you find a way to win and we’re learning how to win,” Helton said. “We weren’t able to sustain. Offensively we did some really good things tonight but when it came to crunch time, we didn’t make the play.”

WKU (0-1) led from the start until Blackman’s halfback pass in the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers held the ball over 10 minutes longer than the Bears in the second half, but couldn’t stop the big play. Besides Blackman’s halfback pass that came one play after a missed field goal from WKU freshman Cory Munson, Smith made completions on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Winningham and fourth quarter throws of 38 and 35 yards to set up the winning score.

Winningham sliced WKU’s secondary for eight catches, 222 yards and three touchdowns.

“The fourth quarter, we were battling with adversity,” WKU defensive end DeAngelo Malone said. “I think we could have played faster, but we’ll get it fixed tomorrow. The locker room is good. We can’t let this one game define us. We’ll just have to go to work tomorrow.”

The Hilltoppers’ first two drives couldn’t have gone better.

On the first offensive play, Gaej Walker took a draw left and scampered 68 yards for a touchdown. WKU’s next drive took nine plays to go 56 yards and ended with a Steven Duncan bootleg pass to freshman tight end Joshua Simon on the right side from five yards out to make it 14-0 less than 10 minutes into the game.

The fireworks cooled off from there.

After UCA moved 14 yards on its first three drives, it benefited from two interceptions off Duncan and moved 200 yards for two touchdowns.

The Bears cut the score to 14-7 with Breylin Smith’s 23-yard touchdown toss over the middle to Lujuan Winningham on fourth down.

Duncan responded after his first two interceptions to lead another scoring drive. The quarterback kept it himself for a 3-yard run to go up 21-7.

The Bears punched back to make it a one-score game with Smith’s 4-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Tyler Hudson with 26 seconds in the half. Walker’s third-quarter touchdown run gave WKU a 28-14 into the fourth quarter.

That’s when the wheels fell off.

Central Arkansas scored three unanswered touchdowns and WKU didn’t move the ball past the UCA 33 on its last two drives.

Duncan played the complete game with 304 yards on 26-of-39 passing with one touchdown and two picks.

Walker led WKU’s ground game with 19 carries for 152 yards and two scores.

“We’re not where we want to be, but good teams respond to adversity, so we have no choice but to bounce back,” Walker said.

UP NEXT

WKU visits FIU next Saturday for a 6 p.m. kickoff. The Panthers allowed 350 rushing yards in a 42-14 loss at Tulane on Thursday night.

NOTES

Tyson Helton is 0-1 as the head coach for Western Kentucky. … The Hilltoppers have lost two straight to an FCS opponent. … Central Arkansas is 2-0 against WKU with its last win coming in 2009 in Bowling Green. … Walker’s 68-yard touchdown run was the longest rushing score by a Hilltopper since Nicholas Norris on an 85-yard run against Houston Baptist on Oct. 1, 2016. … Walker’s 152-yard rushing night was the most by a WKU back since Ace Wales ran for 243 yards in the Boca Raton Bowl in 2016. … Steven Duncan had career-highs in completions (26), attempts (39) and passing yards (304). … Announced attendance was 17,120.{&end}

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

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