Nick Mullens

Western Kentucky pulls away for first Conference USA championship

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Western Kentucky (11-2, 8-0 Conference USA) needed some big plays late in the first half to pull even with Southern Mississippi (9-3, 7-1 Conference USA), but it was all Hilltoppers in the second half as the home team captured its first Conference USA championship in school history.

WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty passed for 410 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another score in the conference championship victory. Western Kentucky’s defense made plays as well, forcing four Southern Mississippi turnovers in the win. That included three interceptions of Nick Mullens. For WKU, Doughty’s top target was Taywan Taylor, who ended the game with 165 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. D’Andre Ferby helped ice the game for Western Kentucky with a pair of rushing touchdowns.

Western Kentucky added on to its school record for wins in a single season since jumping up to the FBS by picking up its 11th win of the season. Before winning 10 game sin the regular season this fall, the most wins WKU had in a season since making the move up was eight wins, which were earned each of the past two seasons.

The result of the win could also help keep WKU head coach Jeff Brohm on the radar for future coaching searches. Brohm will get a chance to pick up his second bowl win in as many seasons as a head coach.

Despite taking the loss in the conference championship game, there should be no reason to be disappointed at Southern Mississippi. Head coach Todd Monken has done an admirable job turning things around with the program since taking over in 2013. A year after Larry Fedora left for UNC after winning the Conference USA championship, Southern Miss went 0-12 in 2012. Monken won just one game in his first season and three game sin his second. The foundation appeared to be laid and the growing pains worked out for a nine-win season this fall and a chance to win a 10th game once again in a bowl game.

Big plays for Western Kentucky seize momentum from Southern Miss in C-USA Championship Game

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Southern Mississippi had scored 21 straight points to take a solid 21-7 lead on Western Kentucky, but big plays in the final minutes of the half have made for a much more wide-open Conference USA Championship Game. Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty completed a long pass down the right side of the field to Taywan Taylor for a 49-yard gain, and two plays later the two connected again for a game-tying touchdown (21-21) that gave the home team all of the momentum going to halftime.

Western Kentucky struck early to capitalize on an early miscue by Southern Miss. Nick Mullens was picked off by Branden Leston to put the Hilltoppers right at the Southern Miss 28-yard line. A 21-yard run by Anthony Wales put WKU at the five-yard line and Antwane Grant pulled in a short touchdown pass from Brandon Doughty for the first score of the game.

The teams exchanged punts on the next couple of possessions, but the Golden Eagles got things going on their next possession, which started just on Western Kentucky’s side of the 50, from the 45-yard line. Mullens redeemed himself with a pair of passes for first downs on successive plays and Jalen Richard picked up a short two-yard touchdown run to draw even at 7-7. The Golden Eagles took their first lead, 14-7, when Michael Thomas caught a rocket across the middle fo the field for a five-yard touchdown to cap a short 32-yard touchdown drive following a 27-yard Western Kentucky punt from their five-yard line. The lead was soon expanded to 21-7 when Doughty’s pass was picked off by Kalan Reed and returned 40 yards for a touchdown.

Doughty made sure Western Kentucky got to halftime with some reason for optimism. Doughty took off for a touchdown run late in the first half to cut the deficit to 21-14.