JIM MASHEK COLUMN/Veltkamp proves he belongs in Hilltoppers’ amazing comeback and overtime victory over ODU, 38-35


South Warren High School football coach Brandon Smith settled in front of his TV on Monday afternoon to catch Western Kentucky University’s bowl game with Old Dominion University, in a fleeting contest known as the Famous Toastery Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Smith is an alumnus of WKU and a former Hilltoppers quarterback, but one of his prize pupils figured to get a chance to play Monday.

Caden Veltkamp did a lot more than that. The 6-foot-6 former South Warren star more or less willed the Hilltoppers to a 38-35 overtime victory, completing 40 of 52 passes for 383 yards and five touchdowns, including a 4th-and-goal play from the ODU 15-yard line with the game on the line in the final minute of regulation.

“Caden’s just a winner,” Smith said. “He waited for his opportunity … and he showed what he can do on the field. Everybody at South Warren is thrilled for him. Ecstatic.”

Veltkamp, who guided South Warren to a 14-1 season and a KHSAA Class 5A state championship just two years ago, was selected the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Turner Helton, the Hilltoppers’ backup quarterback, got the start in Monday’s game in Charlotte because sixth-year senior Austin Reed was sitting it out, to heal from some injuries before leaving for the East-West Shrine Bowl on February 1 at Frisco, Texas.

Helton, the nephew of fifth-year WKU head coach Tyson Helton, got the Hilltoppers in a quick 21-0 hole, losing a fumble on his team’s second possession and throwing a pick six in the third.

To say it looked bleak, for the Tops, would be an understatement.

Veltkamp, who entered the NCAA Transfer Portal earlier this month, was expected to take SOME snaps in this game, after Austin Reed made the questionable decision to opt out and begin his pursuit of a pro football career.

Turns out, it might have been the best thing for everyone. Particularly Caden Veltkamp.

Tyson Helton gave his nephew the hook after the pick six midway through the first quarter, when the Monarchs’ Kris Caine intercepted a weak pass into the right flat before returning it 30 yards for a touchdown.

Old Dominion would score again, after Veltkamp’s first series, to make it 28-0. That’s when Veltkamp and a revamped offense trotted back onto the field and started making things happen.

Veltkamp completed his first 15 passes of the afternoon and helped move the chains a couple times with quarterback keepers to the outside. The Tops were still getting their bearings, but you could sense they were finding some footing. And then Glasgow’s Dalvin Smith started to put on a show.

Smith got the Hilltoppers on the scoreboard with a spectacular one-handed catch in the left corner of the end zone, hauling in Veltkamp’s deft pass for a 14-yard scoring reception. It was midway through the second quarter, but WKU had stopped the bleeding, at least for a while, and trailed 28-7.

That score held up until halftime, and WKU got the ball to open the third quarter. That’s when Veltkamp took the team the length of the field before Dalvin Smith made an even BETTER one-handed grab of a bll thrown over the middle, making a leaping catch — in stride, mind you — on his way to the end zone for an 18-yard TD reception.

“I threw some OK balls to Dalvin and he just flexed with one hand,” Veltkamp said.

Suddenly, you think the Tops might have a chance, but Old Dominion’s Grant Wilson scored on a 21-yard run, late in the third quarter, and WKU again trailed by three touchdowns.

Didn’t matter.

Veltkamp had already told his teammates what they were going to do, in the huddle, in the waning moments of the first quarter.

“I told these guys, ‘We’re going to win the game,'” Veltkamp said in the postgame press conference. “As soon as I went in, I said, ‘We’re going to win … we’re going to win the game.

“It took (until) the very last play to do it, but it’s because of the guys around me. They played unreal.”

The fourth quarter was a testament to the Hilltoppers’ grit, to their resourcefulness, to their moxie with the game on the line.

“This is what bowl games are all about,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said.

Hilltoppers running back Elijah Young made a play for the highlights reel in trimming the WKU deficit to 35-21. He pulled in Veltkamp’s swing pass to the right side before HURDLING an Old Dominion defender in the open field, scoring on a 37-yard reception with 14:09 left in the game.

Still plenty of time to make something happen.

Veltkamp again got the ball to Dalvin Smith, who made a tough catch in the back of the end zone for a 14-yard TD reception with nine minutes and change showing on the scoreboard clock. It was a single-score game, and WKU’s defense had to thwart a couple Old Dominion drives down the stretch, including the first of two blocked field-goal attempts.

WKU had defensive stars in this game, too. Junior defensive back Anthony Johnson, a transfer from NCAA Division II West Florida — he followed Austin Reed to Bowling Green earlier this year — had eight tackles and a crucial interception. He was named the defensive MVP of the game.

Veltkamp struggled at times with the velocity on his ball, but his accuracy was pinpoint. He hit some deep passes — “that’s always been one of his strengths,” South Warren coach Brandon Smith said — but he also made some critical plays with his legs, leading the Hilltoppers with 53 yards rushing.

(It would have been more, but the two sacks Veltkamp took, one for 14 yards, reduced his total yardage.)

“Both of (the sacks) were my fault,” Veltkamp said when it was over.

ODU quarterback Grant Wilson made a handful of impressive plays himself, and he carried the ball eight times for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

Veltkamp and Co. put one last touchdown drive together in the final minutes of regulation.

And, not surprisingly, the Hilltoppers did it the hard way.

Veltkamp faced a fourth-and-goal situation at the ODU 15-yard line with less than 30 seconds on the clock when he took the snap from center in the pistol formation. Dalvin Smith was drawing a crowd. The Monarchs had the field pretty much covered.

Then, in an instant, Veltkamp found redshirt freshman receiver K.D. Hutchinson at the goal line, near the pylon in the corner of the left end zone. And this time, he ZIPPED it. Right in Hutchinson’s hands. And Hutchinson pulled it in for the score.

That’s when WKU coach Tyson Helton had to decide whether to go for the win right there, with a two-point conversion, or try his luck at overtime. Freshman placekicker Lucas Carniero added the PAT and they were going to OT.

Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, they won the toss for overtime. They could defend first, and they stopped the Monarchs at the WKU 1-yard line before Old Dominion was hit with a false start, bringing the field-goal unit on the field.

Western’s Talique Allen broke through the line and blocked an Ethan Sanchez try of a 23-yard field goal, putting the game in Caden Veltkamp’s hands. The Hilltoppers punched out one first down and then played for the field goal, and Carneiro did the honors, drilling the winning kick from 29 yards out.

It was the fourth-largest comeback in college bowl game history, and it happened, frankly, because Caden Veltkamp willed it to happen.

“I’ve always thought Caden’s greatest strength was his intangibles,” South Warren coach Brandon Smith said on Monday night.

Western Kentucky arguably underachieved in Tyson Helton’s fifth season as the Tops’ head coach. The Hilltoppers were the favorite in a reshuffled Conference USA, in this wide-open era of college football, what with the NIL, NCAA Transfer Portal and conference realignment. The Tops finished the season with an 8-5 overall record.

Monday’s game took a little sting out of that reality.

One of Veltkamp’s South Warren teammates, Lindsey Wilson College offensive lineman Preston Parks, said the Spartans’ senior class of 2022 participated in a group chat via text messages that included 15 former South players, maybe more.

Randy Lee, the “Voice of the Hilltoppers” for the WKU radio/TV network, said it was the most memorable moment he’s called on the air since arriving in Bowling Green in 2007.

Veltkamp had tears in his eyes — tears of sheer joy, of course — after the game was finally over, after four hours with countless twists and turns in Charlotte.

Parks said it was the same expression he saw when South Warren outlasted Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School, 38-26, in the KHSAA Class 5A state championship game on December 4, 2021, at Kroger Field.

“Caden looked exactly the same, exactly like he did after we won that state title at South,” Parks said. “He knows what he wants to do, and he knows how to get there. He just needed a chance.”

Caden Veltkamp’s future is uncertain. He told reporters on hand that the WKU coaches want him to play tight end, suggesting that might be his only future with the team.

Surely, this changes everything.

You would think. I know I do.

Caden Veltkamp should be the No. 1 quarterback on the WKU depth chart going into spring drills.


Dennis Tomek was the Hilltoppers’ starting quarterback when I walked on with the WKU football team in 1974. I was a wide-eyed kid from Potomac, Maryland, drawn to Western because of its proximity to my maternal grandparents and extended family in Tennessee and Kentucky. Tomek, a senior QB from Princeton, Kentucky, was one of my elder teammates who looked out for me, who appreciated young linemen such as myself.

DT was duly impressed. I have to believe Veltkamp’s WKU teammates, and coaches, were too.

“Under the circumstances,” Tomek said, “I thought Caden did a great job. He seems to have the arm, and looks like a great teammate, on the field. He seemed to be in it for WKU, and not just the stats … He has waited long enough and now he’s produced.

“You never know, if a freshman comes in, or another player, from the portal, but Caden proved that you have to have more than one quarterback to be ready to play. That’s the way it is, for every position …

“It’s going to be a tough call. But you’ve got to be happy for those guys. Definitely.”