Through one quarter Saturday against FIU, Gaej Walker had 11 yards on five carries, with a long of 4 yards on the first play the Hilltoppers ran.
His long improved to 9 yards on one of his two carries in WKU’s first drive of the second quarter. That quarter, there was also a talk with WKU head coach Tyson Helton.
“I went over to him and I said, ‘Hey man, I know you’ve made a couple of nice runs here and there. I’d love to see you take one to the house,’ ” Helton said.
Walker was unable to finish a big run, but he did have a 54-yard burst to highlight his top performance of the season – it was his first 100-yard rushing game of 2020 – and lead the Hilltoppers to their best offensive performance this season in the 38-21 win over the Panthers.
“With the 100-yard game, I feel like you’ve just got to break a couple long ones and then you’re at 100,” Walker said. “I feel like that’s what I did and that’s how I got there.”
Walker finished with 127 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He was at 66 yards rushing entering the fourth quarter.
“(Helton) said he wanted us to get 50-plus yard runs,” Walker said. “The 10-yard run’s cool and all, but the 50-yard run plus, that’s what’s going to help us, give us a spark.”
The Hilltoppers got the ball back 10 seconds into the final frame, and Walker took the handoff from Tyrrell Pigrome going to his right, turned the corner and was heading to the end zone. He crossed the goal line, but officials ruled he stepped out at the FIU 5-yard line. The 6-foot, 195-pound redshirt senior got the ball the next two plays, eventually finding the end zone on a 1-yard run to give WKU a commanding 31-13 lead.
“Malachi Corley had a great block down the sideline. He just held on and he was driving his feet, and I felt like that’s what really helped me get around the edge,” Walker said, then paused. “Then I really think I scored on that play. We ain’t going to talk about it, but I think I scored on that play.”
Walker now has 516 yards and two touchdowns on 116 attempts this season. He hasn’t seen the level of carries he had last year, where he accounted for 92% of carries and 93% of yards from the team’s running backs. The 54-yard run was his longest of the season – his previous long was 38 yards against Chattanooga – and marked his second run of 20-plus yards.
The big run highlighted the best offensive performance of the season for WKU. The Hilltoppers had struggled to score for much of the season, but found the end zone three times Saturday, and also drove close enough for a 39-yard field goal from Brayden Narveson in the second quarter.
WKU hadn’t scored multiple touchdowns in a game since a 37-14 loss at UAB on Oct. 17, and entered the game ranked last in Conference USA and 122nd of 126 FBS teams in scoring offense at 14.7 points per game.
The majority of the offense came in the second half, after the defense turned momentum in WKU’s direction with scores on back-to-back plays. Before that, FIU led 13-10 and had punted on six of its nine possessions, including one play before the half.
“Whether we’re throwing it or running it, you’ve got to move the football and you’ve got to finish drives. In the first half, we scored 10 and we’re kind of piddling around, you know?” Helton said. “I don’t want to say we’re going through the motions, but there ain’t a lot happening.
“Defensively, they erupt and get the two touchdowns and offensively, we’re able to start answering. That’s what momentum does. That’s what turnovers do. It creates a lot of energy, it creates momentum and you capitalize on those things and good things happen.”
Roger Cray had the first defensive touchdown – a 19-yard scoop and score after DeAngelo Malone forced FIU quarterback Max Bortenschlager to fumble. On the Panthers’ next play, Eli Brown picked off Bortenschlager and returned it for a 22-yard touchdown.
Walker, who started his WKU career as a defensive back, agreed that it gave the rest of the team a boost.
“I want to run out there and celebrate with them. I used to be with them,” he said. “When I see Roger score, I was about to run on the field and just say, ‘Forget getting a flag. Let me turn up.’ ”
Saturday marked the first time Walker – or any Hilltopper – crossed the 100-yard rushing mark this season. Walker transitioned to running back before the 2019 season and finished second in C-USA with 241 carries for 1,208 yards. He had seven 100-yard rushing games, and Saturday marked his first 100-yard game since he had 119 on 14 carries in last season’s senior day victory over Middle Tennessee.
Walker was one of 14 players honored before Saturday’s senior day game, but Helton gave no definitive answer on which players would or would not be back next season with the NCAA’s blanket waiver giving fall sport student-athletes an additional year of eligibility and an additional year to complete it.
“It was big. If it’s my last game, being my last game just going out with a bang,” Walker said. “All the seniors, big win – big team win.”
WKU now has back-to-back victories and one game remaining on the schedule. The Hilltoppers are currently scheduled to travel to Charlotte for a 6 p.m. game Saturday, where Walker is hoping to close strong.
“I know all of us are hungry to finish out the season on a good note. Three(-game) win streak. That’s big leading into next season,” Walker said. “I’m hungry, I’m sure everybody else is hungry to get another dub.”