REED FINDS HIS WAY/New WKU quarterback guides Hilltoppers past Austin Peay, 38-27


Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton was looking for some balance, some consistency, some way to get the Hilltoppers rolling in the right direction in their opening game Saturday afternoon against former OVC rival Austin Peay State University.

The Hilltoppers are also looking for a worthy successor to record-setting quarterback Bailey Zappe, who’s moved on to his rookie year with the NFL’s New England Patriots this summer.

Zappe was a one-and-gone phenomenon, but Austin Reed has taken his first steps in succeeding him.

Reed completed 19 of 33 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday, leading WKU to a workmanlike 38-27 victory over the visiting Governors at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Helton, the Hilltoppers’ fifth-year coach, seems to have a feel for this WKU squad as it gets ready for the long trip to play the University of Hawaii next Saturday in Honolulu.

With an open date following the Hawaii gig, and a trip up Interstate 65 to face Indiana University in Bloomington, the Hilltoppers won’t play in Houchens-Smith Stadium again until September 24, an afternoon game against Conference USA East rival Florida International.

By then, Reed may be established as the hired gun the Hilltoppers need to thrive as a Group of Five football squad. Western hasn’t won a Conference USA championship since 2016, but the ‘Toppers were the East winners last season, falling to UT-San Antonio 49-41 in the C-USA title game in the Alamodome.

Reed, a graduate student in his final year of eligibility, toiled at the NCAA Division II level with West Florida University before transferring to WKU.

Western led by just a single point, 21-20, after three quarters, as APSU quarterback Mike Diliello, formerly of Middle Tennessee State, kept his team in the game.

Ultimately, the ‘Tops had enough might and moxie to push their former OVC rival out of the way and back to Clarksville.

“We just finally found a rhythm,” Helton said. “We went right out of the gate in the second half, we went two three-and-outs … we just couldn’t get that rhythm. For us, you’ve got to be able to get that drive started, move the chains, make a big play and now, we’ve got you on your heels a little bit.

“Once we started to do that, we looked like ourselves.”

WKU wide receiver Malachi Corley, a sturdy 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore from Campbellsville, Kentucky, was the receiver on three of Reed’s four touchdown passes. Corley had scoring receptions of 16, 11 and 25 yards, the 25-yard TD catch on a beautiful throw from Reed at the goal line about two minutes into the fourth quarter.

That pushed the WKU lead to 28-20, allowed everyone to breathe a little sigh of relief and left Diliello and the Governors with more than they could overcome.

Reed unloaded a 48-yard touchdown pass to WKU teammate Daewood Davis with 11:34 left in the game, pushing the Hilltoppers’ lead to 35-20. Western’s Lorenzo Hernandez would later cross the goal line from 30 yards out on an apparent scoop-and-score, but that play was overturned by video review, and Diliello gave APSU new life with a deft 24-yard touchdown pass with 8:09 left, trimming the ‘Toppers lead again to eight points.

Western’s offense controlled the ball before placekicker Brayden Narveson drilled a 24-yard field goal at the 3:18 mark, and that score held up as the Hilltoppers could put their 38-27 victory in the books.

“We didn’t play our best football in the first half,” Reed said. “We came out in the second half and kind of turned it up a little bit.”

Western’s run game was inconsistent, with Indiana transfer Davion Ervin-Poindexter leading the Hilltoppers with 49 yards rushing on 15 carries.

WKU freshman corner Upton Stout had the team’s big defensive play in the first half, intercepting a DiLiello pass in the middle of the field and scoring on a 34-yard return with 4:27 left in the second quarter.

That made it 21-10, but Diliello directed an 11-play, 60-yard touchdown drive to pull the Governors within four points before halftime. Diliello scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 18 seconds showing on the clock.

Mike Diliello, the MTSU transfer, completed 15 of 21 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice.

Former WKU running back Josh Samuels led the Governors with 77 yards rushing, on 20 carries.

Fifth-year WKU coach Tyson Helton was impressed with Austin Peay’s tenacity and toughness at the line of scrimmage.

“Hat’s off to Austin Peay,” Helton said. “They’re a good football team … Very, very challenging game for us … (There’s) a lot of things we need to correct.

“I think it was kind of apparent, to everybody, that there’s some situational football we can get better at. But I’m proud of our guys. They battled hard, in a tough football game, and I thought they responded well.

“Particularly in the second half.”