Nobody at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas knew what exactly was going on.
Uncertainty resonated through the air as hordes of Western Michigan and Western Kentucky players traded places between the sideline and the playing field, unsure of which unit was being sent out. WKU rotated between its offense and the kicking unit before firmly deciding to send the offense out. In response, Western Michigan quickly shuffled its cards to send its defensive backs onto the field to prevent the Hilltoppers’ final Hail Mary pass.
They did just that. Western Michigan strong safety Harrison Taylor tracked down the ball, and at its highest reachable point, he spiked it to the ground to force overtime at the First Responder Bowl. At least, until further official review. After the referees investigated, Western Michigan had 12 players on the field, providing WKU an untimed down.
Cory Munson stepped up to the plate and drained it from 52 yards, a career-long for the freshman. The uncertainty finally subsided and one thing was clear: the Hilltoppers (9-4) were 2019 First Responder Bowl champions, defeating Western Michigan (7-6), 23-20.
“Really disappointed in the end,” Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester said. “When they have their Hail Mary team out there and then they run their kicking team out there and then they run their Hail Mary team out there, you have to stand over the ball to give us time to change but it didn’t happen. It was a good game... but when it comes down to something like that, it’s frustrating. We have to swallow a pill and learn from it.”
It was a whirlwind of emotions from players and coaches alike, who weren’t exactly sure what was happening as WKU swapped between its Hail Mary team and its kicking team several times.
“Honestly, we didn’t really know exactly what was going on,” quarterback Jon Wassink said. “We were just waiting for the refs to tell us what was going on. We were trying to be patient, not get antsy, but we were also trying to get ready for overtime too.”
Munson capped off his first season as WKU’s kicker in an unforgettable and unexpected manner. Before lining up for the 52-yarder, Munson was 16/27 this season and 7/16 from 30 yards or greater. His career-long was only 48 yards and he missed a 29-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, but none of that mattered on the kick which defined WKU’s resurgent season.
“It was pretty crazy with all the penalties with them having 12 men on the field, so I was off and on, off and on,” Munson said. “I went back out there and I was staying calm, I was breathing. Just stayed calm and walked through it, next thing I knew, it was up there. I knew I was gonna make it, had the wind with me, and I felt pretty comfortable about it.”
Munson was tackled in the celebration and WKU’s entire sideline sprinted onto the field, hoisting the program’s first bowl trophy since 2016 to finish year one under Tyson Helton, a year which saw triple the amount of wins as the 2018 team.
“All of his others were wiped away,” Helton said on the game-winning kick. “Something inside of me told me that when we got the penalty that he was going to go out there and knock it right down the middle and he did... This has been what our team is all about all year. We just kept battling and kept fighting.”
But for Western Michigan, the postgame heartbreak and devastation were overwhelming. The Broncos earned a realistic shot at their first bowl victory of the Tim Lester era but took a stumble at a significant moment. On a 3rd and 1 from the WKU 28 with 37 seconds left, quarterback Jon Wassink faked the handoff on a zone read and saw daylight beyond the right tackle. With no defender surrounding him, Wassink tripped and fumbled the ball, missing out on a potential game-sealing gain to lose two yards.
“We tried to get them offsides on a hard count, didn’t quite get them, and I just read the linebacker that was coming off the edge and I pulled it, and I don’t know if I tripped over myself or the running back’s foot or something, but I had an open edge to go get the first down and I just fell,” Wassink said. “It stinks, wish I would have kept my feet, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Facing a 4th and 3 into a strong wind, Western Michigan elected to go for it instead of attempting a 47-yard field goal. The Broncos were 1/4 from 40+ yards this season so Lester placed his faith within his offense. A slow-developing rollout play resulted in a broken up pass toward the sideline, and WKU took over on its own 30 to execute its game-winning drive.
“If we were going the other way, we would’ve kicked it for sure,” Lester said on the decision to leave the offense on the field on fourth down. “It was different going into that wind. We had a one in a hundred chance. If we were inside the 10 or 15, it would’ve been different. We had a great call on (third) down. Jon slides the ball and trips. He had 10 or 15 yards in front of him. It’s so frustrating for a senior like that to make the right decision and have a chance to go win the game. We needed at least two more first downs to feel comfortable with a kick.”
In a battle between the 24th ranked scoring offense in the FBS and the 23rd ranked scoring defense, the Hilltoppers stifled the Broncos’ explosive offense. WKU out-gained Western Michigan, 481-307, in the yardage department while limiting the nation’s rushing touchdown leader LeVante Bellamy to 3.3 yards per carry and zero touchdowns.
“They’re good on defense. They’re the number one defense in their league for a reason,” Lester said regarding WKU. “They do a good job of loading up that box and those safeties do a good job of coming down and tackling. (Bellamy) probably had about four times where he gets shoe-stringed, where he tripped — if he just stays on his feet, we got ‘em big. We tried to stay patient with him and just keep trusting him knowing he’d pop one. Never quite hit a big one but definitely got loose a couple times there.”
But despite the Broncos inability to generate a typical offense, the defense rose to the occasion with a clutch play before halftime. Trailing 10-3 with a WKU scoring drive on the horizon, a tipped pass landed in the hands of Western Michigan cornerback Kareem Ali. Ali sprinted 88 yards to the end zone to complete the longest play in Broncos’ bowl history and tie the game at 10 entering the break.
“It was huge because our offense was struggling a little bit, so that just gave us a boost going into half,” free safety A.J. Thomas said. “Anytime the defense can get their hands on the ball and score is huge.”
Western Michigan’s defense then continued to prevail by pitching a shutout in the third quarter. With the defense’s success, the Broncos’ offense gained a touchdown advantage on a screen pass from Wassink to wide receiver DaShon Bussell. The play marked Wassink’s 50th career touchdown pass, moving solely into fifth place for most in Western Michigan history in his final time suiting up in brown and gold.
But despite the deficit, countering Western Michigan’s defense was a record-breaking performance by WKU’s top wideout. Senior Lucky Jackson finished his Hilltopper career with an exclamation point, shattering his own program-record with 17 receptions in the contest. He attained 148 yards receiving and hauled in WKU’s lone touchdown of the second half to fittingly win the MVP of the First Responder Bowl.
“It’s always fun getting the ball thrown to you,” Jackson said. “Me and (quarterback Ty Storey) never planned this. When he’s feeling it and I’m feeling it, we kind of have that chemistry, and he knows where I’m gonna be, and I know when he’s expecting me to turn around and things like that. It’s always a big deal to go out and make those plays for him.”
After yielding 358 passing yards to Storey and the WKU offense, the Broncos suffered their third-straight bowl loss, unable to claim their first postseason win of the Lester era. It was the final collegiate game for many crucial seniors who helped shape the transition of the program from P.J. Fleck to Lester, one of them being three-year starting quarterback Jon Wassink.
“It’s a lot of different emotions,” Wassink said postgame. “I’m disappointed we just lost, but also a lot of joy comes from the whole career. Don’t know what I’m feeling right now, but on the way back, a lot of it will come to me.”
The 2019 season marks the third year in a row Western Michigan finishes a season with six losses, and those three seasons follow the Broncos’ most prolific year in program history — a 13-1 campaign with a Cotton Bowl appearance included. The First Responder Bowl, also located in the Dallas metroplex, was the final stand for many seniors who were a part of that special run. When the star-studded senior class walked off Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, they removed the Western Michigan pads for the last time and concluded a sustainable legacy with the program.
“This is the second winningest class in the history of our program and they were the main people that helped us through a transition — a transition that no one’s ever really made it through,” Lester said. “We’ve continued to grow every year and they’re kind of the glue that holds it together. You can’t take any of that away from them. They were not given this situation — they inherited me — so we had to start building a relationship with me immediately, and it’s grown stronger and stronger and stronger. This group means a ton to me and everything they helped us get through.”