MIAMI – One of the more passionate post-practice messages Tyson Helton gives his team throughout the week came Tuesday.

Western Kentucky’s coach preached about finishing in the fourth quarter and being in contention within the last five minutes. Days later in the miserable humidity of southern Florida, the Hilltoppers were pushed to the brink and answered the call.

WKU made a defensive stand against Florida International’s 18-play drive that lasted over half the fourth quarter. It was enough to earn a 20-14 win over the Panthers, giving Helton his first win as the head coach and an early leg up in the Conference USA standings.

“Coach all this week was preaching the last five minutes of the game,” WKU safety Devon Key said. “We knew it was going to come down to that and we knew what we had to do.”

The Hilltoppers (1-1 overall, 1-0 C-USA) never trailed and stood tall when the Panthers (0-2, 0-1) came within a yard of a potential go-ahead score.

WKU had two field goals to build a 20-14 lead before FIU took possession with 12:26 left in the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Kaylan Wiggins led the Panthers on an 18-play, 60-yard drive that reached the WKU 2-yard line. The Panthers converted two fourth-down attempts and benefited from a facemask and pass interference call that set the table for a touchdown.

A fumbled snap moved the ball back to the 16 for third down.

“It changed (everything),” defensive end Juwuan Jones said. “It was huge and they were on the goal line probably trying to run it in four times, to be honest. With that fumble, that pushed them back and gave us momentum and helped us get the stop.”

FIU’s starting quarterback James Morgan left the game in the first half with an ankle injury, but re-entered the game looking to score. He threw two incomplete passes and the Hilltoppers retook possession and ran out the clock.

Over a week removed from allowing 21 unanswered points to FCS Central Arkansas, WKU responded to Helton’s challenge for a road win against an FIU team predicted to finish second in the C-USA East Division standings.

“We talked about all week responding to adversity and I can’t be more proud of our football team,” Helton said. “Especially our defense. Drive after drive they responded and came through. That was great to see them. The whole team battled. All three phases, they battled hard. It was obviously not perfect, a lot we have to clean up.

“Winning brings motivation, it brings confidence and that was a big win for us tonight. It’s one win and we have to build on it.”

A week after allowing 400 yards passing to UCA, the Hilltoppers held FIU to 66 passing yards and 217 of total offense. Once Morgan went out of the game, the defense had to adjust for the mobility of Wiggins, who completed two passes for 41 yards.

His 40-yard completion third-and-long to Maurice Alexander help set up Napoleon Maxwell’s 15-yard touchdown run that cut into WKU’s lead at 17-14 with 6:03 left in the third quarter.

WKU held FIU to 3.3 yards per rush and 2-of-15 on third-down conversions.

“My hat’s off to the defensive staff and players,” Helton said. “They came out tonight and had something to prove. They really felt bad about last week and it was a total team loss. They came and dominated tonight and that’s huge for them and a big confidence builder.”

Offensively, WKU finished drives with scores, albeit not all in the end zone. The Hilltoppers scored all three times it reached the red zone, but two field goals were all WKU could earn in the second half.

WKU took a 14-7 lead into the locker room, then freshman kicker Cory Munson went 2-for-2 in the second half from 19 and 44 yards out.

Quarterback Steven Duncan completed 19-of-33 pass attempts for 241 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, the first of which was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by Richard Dames in the first quarter.

Gaej Walker had 27 of WKU’s 35 rushing attempts for 100 yards and a second-quarter touchdown. Walker now has 205 rushing yards in two games since converting from the defensive back position.

WKU’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack and the Hilltoppers averaged five yards per play.

“We feel good about the offense,” receiver Lucky Jackson said. “Guys made plays and played great for the quarterback. Shout out to the o-line. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. Protecting the quarterback and the running back and making this thing run smooth. It was great for the offense and our confidence.”

WKU went three-and-out on its opening drive, but found the end zone on its next possession. Duncan hit Jackson on a 48-yard flea flicker, then found Kyle Fourtenbary wide open in the flat to put WKU inside the 10. Two plays later, Duncan showed off the touch with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jahcour Pearson.

Duncan’s mistake on the next drive gave FIU its only positive of the first half. The Hilltoppers’ QB was intercepted by Dames on an underthrown pass down the left sideline. Dames weaved his way to an 80-yard pick-six to tie the game with 6:06 left in the first quarter.

Both teams exchanged punts until the Hilltoppers retook the lead late in the first half. Quin Jernighan hauled in his first reception of the season 26 yards down the left sideline, then Jacquez Sloan’s catch and run put WKU down at the FIU 2.

Walker punched in the go-ahead score on a 2-yard run to put WKU ahead with 3:53 left.

WKU’s defense dominated the first half and made a key fourth-down stop that stalled the Panthers’ late drive before halftime. The Toppers outgained FIU 255-91 in the first half and Morgan left the game with an ankle injury.

Wiggins entered the game for the last two drives and was stuffed on a quick sneak on fourth-and-1 with four seconds left in the half to help WKU preserve a one-score lead at the half.

Duncan led another drive inside the 10, but could only take it to the 1-yard line to set up Munson’s 19-yard field goal to give the Hilltoppers a double-digit lead. That was the last WKU score as the defense held on to secure the first win of the year.

“That first win of the season,” Jackson said. “Everybody is ready for it and it’s a momentum builder going forward.”

UP NEXT

WKU will be the home team against the Louisville Cardinals next Saturday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Louisville defeated Eastern Kentucky 42-0 on Saturday.

NOTES

Tyson Helton earned his first win as WKU’s coach … With the victory, WKU takes a one-game lead in the all-time series with FIU 7-6 and 4-4 in Miami. … WKU’s offensive line has allowed one sack through the first two games. … Lucky Jackson had six receptions for 93 yards and moved into a tie for ninth on WKU’s career receptions list with 124. … Announced attendance at Riccardo Silva Stadium was 13,311.{&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.

(1) comment

Dharvwalk

Correction: Gaej Walker currently has 252 rushing yards

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