HAMMER & TONGS/WKU defense takes the initiative as Hilltoppers bludgeon MTSU, 31-10


They scored first, they scored last, they pretty much strapped Middle Tennessee State on a one-way rail outta town.

Due south.

Western Kentucky’s football team needed a spark after last week’s 27-24 loss to Troy University, in Troy, Alabama, and the Hilltoppers returned to Houchens-Smith Stadium on Thursday night intent on changing the narrative for their 2023 season.

No problem.

At least on this night.

Western Kentucky’s Austin Reed passed for 297 yards and two touchdowns, adding a second-quarter touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak, as the Hilltoppers bludgeoned traditional rival Middle Tennessee State, 31-10, before a paid crowd of 14, 712 at The Houch.

But it was a night that belonged to the WKU defense, the one that surrendered 63 points to sixth-ranked Ohio State less than two weeks earlier, at the Horseshoe, the one that couldn’t complete the task at hand in last week’s road trip to face the Trojans at Troy University.

Tyson Helton, WKU’s fifth-year head coach, seemed to have a premonition about this one.

“Our guys were ready to play,” Helton said. “Their jaw was set. You could see it in their eyes.”

Western’s defense allowed just 142 yards total offense in the first half, while Reed and Co. were throwing it around the lot and building a solid 23-3 lead. The Tops twice intercepted MTSU quarterback Nicholas Vattiato, and WKU linebacker Bryson Washington recovered a second-quarter fumble by the Blue Raiders’ Kalani Norris, as the Hilltoppers improved to 3-2 overall and 1-0 in Conference USA.

The Hilltoppers have now won five consecutive “100 Miles Of Hate” rivalry games with the Blue Raiders, the longest such streak against MTSU in school history. And this one was never in doubt.

WKU’s sturdy offensive line usually gave Austin Reed plenty of time to survey the field and locate secondary receivers. And the Hilltoppers’ defense grabbed MTSU by its collective throat and didn’t let the Blue Raiders into the end zone until the issue was all but decided.

And WKU freshman placekicker Lucas Carneiro continued to shine, drilling a 45-yard field goal and adding three extra points in the rout of the Blue Raiders (1-4, 0-1 in Conference USA).

“Our defense was fantastic,” Helton said. “We got the turnovers and the stops when we needed it … We battled all night on offense … Lucas Carneiro, he can hit it from anywhere. There’s no fear in his eye, he’s doing a really nice job.”

MTSU managed just 124 yards total offense in the first half, and the Blue Raiders didn’t get into the end zone until Vattiato directed a methodical 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive — consuming nearly six minutes of clock — in the third quarter. MTSU’s Frank Peasant scored on a draw play, a 16-yard scamper down the left sideline for the Blue Raiders’ only touchdown with 9:03 left in the third quarter.

The Blue Raiders were on the move again, on their next series, but the WKU defense foiled the MTSU offense after a rather curious fourth-and-goal call from the Hilltoppers’ 3-yard line.

Vattiato took the snap from center and was immediately swarmed by the Hilltoppers’ defensive line, losing 1 yard in the process. On the next play, Austin Reed fired a 19-yard completion to WKU teammate Markese Stepp on the right sideline, and the Tops were on their way to an impressive triumph.

“We did some good things, but not consistent enough, on either side of the ball, to get a win against a good team like them,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill told Cecil Joyce of the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “It was disappointing. Frustrating. But there’s a lot of games left, a lot of conference left.”

Western Kentucky has clearly had the upper hand in this rivalry, particularly on offense, over the last few years. The Hilltoppers now lead the all-time series, 37-35-1, in a rivalry that dates back to their days in the Ohio Valley Conference.

“The second half was kind of weird, with that new (NCAA) clock rule,” Reed said. “We only had one series, maybe two, in that third quarter. Our defense did their job; they gave us a chance to win the game.

“In the first half, we felt like we had the passing game going. When you’re on the sideline so long, like we were in the second half … you kind of get ‘cold turkey.’

“You’ve just got to realize the job at hand.”

Besides placekicker Lucas Carneiro, the Hilltoppers have another success story in redshirt freshman Easton Messer, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound wideout from Louisville Christian Academy.

“I don’t really pass the ‘eye test’,'” Messer said with a grin.

With star receivers Dalvin Smith and Malachi Corley battling injuries in the early going, Messer and other WKU receivers have had a chance to prove themselves. Messer pulled in Reed’s pass in the right corner of the end zone for his third score of the season, an 8-yard TD reception that made it 17-3 in the second quarter.

Austin Reed and Tyson Helton have their eye on Easton Messer, that’s for sure.

“Easton’s done a great job,” Reed said. “He’s a reliable kid, worked really hard. High motor, good football IQ. When he’s number’s called, he doesn’t blink.”

Helton has certainly noticed.

“Austin and Easton, they seem to find each other out there,” he said. “The ball’s getting spread around. It’s not always going to be Malachi (Corley) or Dalvin (Smith).”

Reed passed sparingly in the second half — “you run it, to win it, in the fourth quarter,” Helton said — but finished the night completing 30 of 52 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once, but didn’t take a single sack, while adding 23 yards on the ground, including the 1-yard quarterback sneak for a second-quarter TD.

Senior defensive back Takulve Williams led the Hilltoppers with 12 tackles and an interception, and teammate Bryson Washington added seven tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

“It was a really good win tonight, against a good opponent, in a rivalry game,” Helton said. “I’m very proud of our defense … Now we’ve got to do it on the road.”

The Hilltoppers will square off with Louisiana Tech (3-2, 1-0 in Conference USA) next Thursday night in Ruston, Louisiana. They won’t play on a Saturday again until November 4, when they make the long road trip to El Paso, Texas, to tangle with UTEP (1-4 overall, 1-0 in C-USA) at Sun Bowl Stadium.