BOWLING GREEN, KY. – Turnovers. End of story.
OK, not quite the end of the story. There were a bunch of other things that happened in Western Kentucky's 20-17 Conference USA victory over UAB on Friday night at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
But how big were those turnovers? Big enough that a pregame appearance by a 7-foot rapper, which drew a large crowd, was a mere afterthought.
For the UAB folks, the anguish of three lost fumbles and a game-saving interception by Western Kentucky's Kahlef Hailassee will stick around for a long time.
"It's something that we know, something we understand, we've been through," said UAB head coach Bryant Vincent, whose team had 10 turnovers in three road losses. "We just got to continue to work on, continue to work on, continue to clean it up. Obviously, it's tough to go on the road and turn the ball over."
The turnovers wiped away the good things that did happen for the Blazers, who are 4-0 at Protective Stadium and 0-3 on the road. Running back DeWayne McBride rushed for 197 yards on 24 carries, which will almost certainly be good enough for him to maintain his lead as the national leader in rushing yards per game. But that's not the story. What he will be remembered for in the game, fair or not, is a pair of lost fumbles, one which set up the go-ahead score. He also missed a block on a defensive lineman that helped lead to the other Blazer fumble when quarterback Dylan Hopkins got hit before he could throw in the first quarter.
The other turnover came from backup quarterback Jacob Zeno, who led the Blazers down the field with the game in the balance. But the potential go-ahead ended when Zeno stared down the intended receiver, and Hailassee was in position to pick the ball at the Hilltoppers' 2-yard line.
"It's tough. This one hurt," Vincent said. "The kids fought hard, prepared, fought to the very end, still had an opportunity at the end. It was a tough one."
Things started out smoothly for the Blazers. They got a three-and-out on the opening drive and got the ball on the UAB 36-yard line. On 3rd-and-5, Hopkins delivered the ball to Samario Rudolph in the flat on what looked to be a first down play. Instead, Rudolph eluded a defender and raced 59 yards for the touchdown.
The game took on a new tenor on UAB's third series when Hopkins evaded pressure, took off upfield and was slammed down at the first down marker. The Blazers got the first down and lost their quarterback for the game. UAB radio sideline reporter Landrum Roberts reported during the game that Hopkins did not pass concussion protocol and didn't return to the game. Vincent said afterward that he needed to check with the trainers and team doctors before commenting on Hopkins' injury.
Western Kentucky tied the score at seven on a 20-yard run by quarterback Austin Reed late in the first quarter. The four-play, 47-yard drive was set up when McBride lost a fumble after a 20-yard gain.
The Blazers regained the momentum on a 36-yard field goal that was set up by McBride's 64-yard run. The Blazers Jaylen Key then forced a fumble that Fish McWilliams recovered at the Western Kentucky 27-yard line. Three plays later, Zeno delivered an end zone strike to redshirt freshman Fred Farrier II. The Kentucky native made a sensational catch to give the Blazers a 17-7 lead.
UAB led 17-10 at halftime but did not score in the second half. Western Kentucky crawled to within 17-13 before McBride lost the football late in the third quarter. Western Kentucky linebacker JaQues Evans picked up the football and raced 29 yards to the UAB 6-yard line. Two plays later, Reed pushed in from a yard out to give Western Kentucky its first lead of the night.
UAB's final drive started with 8:22 left at the Blazers' 12-yard line. Zeno found Trea Shropshire for a 23-yard gain, and McBride had two runs totaling 15 yards. After an incomplete pass, McBride burst for a 28-yard gain, and Western Kentucky was called for a facemask penalty on the play. Two runs gained a yard before Zeno threw the interception.
Zeno finished 3 of 10 for 33 yards and had 14 yards on six carries.
"We know that Dylan is our starting quarterback, and he's a really good quarterback," Vincent said. "We definitely faced some adversity early with him being out. That's why we've repped our backup. We try to rep our backup at least a series a game, so if he is thrust in this moment, he's prepared for it."
UAB limited Western Kentucky (5-3 overall, 3-1 C-USA) to 124 yards through the air, but the Hilltoppers gained 224 yards on the ground. Freshman running back LT Sanders, who is from Gardendale, had 120 yards on 16 carries. UAB linebacker Noah Wilder had 14 tackles, including a tackle for loss.
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