The back-to-back Conference USA champions, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (WKU) (10-3, 7-1 C-USA) traveled to sunny Boca Raton, Florida for the second time this year to represent Conference USA against the American Athletic Conference’s University of Memphis Tigers (8-4, 5-3 AAC) to win the third annual Boca Raton Bowl, 51-31.
This is the sixth meeting (2-2-1) between the two teams, however, the first since 1956. The WKU Hilltoppers and Memphis entered this game boasting some of the top scoring offenses in the country. These two offensive powerhouses combined for nearly 85 points per game this season. The Hilltoppers finished second in the nation averaging 45.1 points per game.
Tigers struck first as Quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with Receiver Tony Pollard for a 45-yard touchdown pass. The WKU Hilltoppers responded right back on the following drive as Receiver Stevie Donatell caught a 4-yard pass from Quarterback Mike White to even the score 7-7 with just under eight minutes to play in the first quarter.
Everyone was joining in on the fun, even WKU Offensive Lineman, Lamp Forrest, who punched one in for a 9-yard touchdown to give the Hilltoppers a 14-10 lead, their first lead of the game. Just as momentum built for WKU, Linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe was penalized for targeting Pollard and was ejected from the game.
However, WKU grabbed their lead and never looked back, dominating the second quarter in the rushing game. The Hilltoppers rushed for 143 yards compared to 33 yards by the Tigers. Approaching the end of the first half, WKU in the endzone looked to extend their 28-17 lead, but Memphis’s Defensive Back Dontrell Nelson had other plans, as he picked off White’s pass to grab his fifth career interception.
It was both an offensive and defensive battle for the Tigers all night. To start the second half, the Tigers defense continued to struggle against the WKU Hilltoppers as White hit Receiver Taywan Taylor for a 50-yard touchdown on a four-play, 75-yard drive. This reception touchdown tied Taylor’s own single-season school record for receiving touchdowns. With 7:31 left to play in the quarter, the WKU Hilltoppers lead jumped to 41-17 as a fumble by Ferguson set up a 3-yard touchdown run for Running Back Anthony Wales.
The Tigers’ offense finally caught a much-needed break when a 10-yard pass from Ferguson set up Receiver Anthony Miller for a scoring play to cut the lead to 24-41.
Western Kentucky had too much offensive power for the Memphis Tigers to overcome. Even a late push by the Tigers to bring the score to 41-34, was not enough as the WKU Hilltoppers team rushed the field with 23 seconds left to celebrate a 51-31 victory. With this win, they clinched three consecutive bowl victories. This is a night that the program, who is setting themselves apart from their Conference USA opponents, showed the nation that no matter who is quarterback or coach, they are a winning program.
WKU has about 25 players who are from Florida
The bowl game provided the opportunity for six Memphis players to play in their home state of Florida
The first time ever, a marriage proposal happened at the Boca Raton Bowl
Total offense yards: WKU 598 yards, Memphis 491 yards
“We out hustled them” ~ Western Kentucky’s Defensive Player of the Boca Raton Bowl Keith Brown
“They are absolute champions” ~ Western Kentucky’s new Head Coach Mike Sanford