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2019 First Responder Bowl Five Things Learned: WKU 23, Western Michigan 20

Western Michigan loses its third-straight bowl in excruciating fashion on an untimed down.

NCAA Football: First Responder Bowl-Western Kentucky vs Western Michigan Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 First Responder Bowl was chaos at its finest. The last five minutes of the contest featured four possessions — three pivotal lead-altering field goals and a missed fourth down conversion. But it was the final three seconds which amplified the bizarre nature of the game at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

After batting down WKU’s Hail Mary attempt in the end zone as time expired, Western Michigan was assessed a “12 men on the field” penalty upon further review. WKU earned an untimed down, sent out the field goal unit, and Cory Munson’s 52-yard attempt sailed right down the center of the uprights for the walk-off victory. Celebration ensued for the Hilltoppers, which won their first bowl game in three seasons, but Western Michigan’s gut-wrenching loss lingers as one of the more stunning moments of bowl season.

Western Michigan’s substitution penalty was egregious

Western Michigan’s late-game substitution management ultimately lost the game. Otherwise, the Broncos earn a shot in overtime to win their first bowl since 2015. Yes, WKU continued to switch between the field goal unit and the Hail Mary offense, and the constant movement was confusing. But Western Michigan should have been better prepared.

On WKU’s first attempt at a Hail Mary with three seconds remaining, a flag was thrown and assumed to be a substitution infraction. But the referee picked up the flag and admitted that it was the officials’ fault the Broncos weren’t given proper time to substitute.

Then, after the flag was picked up, WKU pulled a similar stunt by quickly swapping out between the offense and special teams, and Western Michigan still demonstrated confusion. The end result was 12 players on the field and a costly 5-yard penalty. Western Michigan should have expected the substitution chaos and shown increased awareness considering the team was nearly issued a penalty for 12 men on the field just moments before, even if the referees did not give them as ample time as Tim Lester would have liked to switch units. Ultimately, WKU won in regulation on a 52-yard field goal due to the substitution mismanagement at the end.

Stopping the Broncos starts with stopping Bellamy

A top 25 scoring offense faced a top 25 scoring defense in Dallas, and the game trended in the direction of one of the two extremities. The Broncos and Hilltoppers fought in a low-scoring defensive battle, handing the edge to WKU’s disciplined defense. The key to stifling Western Michigan’s explosive offense is limiting Doak Walker Award semifinalist LeVante Bellamy and the Hilltoppers executed this tall task to perfection. Bellamy regularly broke free for long carries all season long, scoring nine touchdown runs from greater than 35 yards, but that was not the case on December 30.

The Hilltoppers never let Bellamy catch fire, holding the MAC Offensive Player of the Year to 60 yards on 18 carries. Bellamy’s longest run tallied just seven yards and WKU’s ability to trip him up and make shoestring tackles kept the most explosive player in the game in check. With the running game diminished, Western Michigan was forced to win through the air, and WKU’s secondary and pass rush forced quarterback Jon Wassink to 19/36 completions for 193 passing yards. Stop the run, and you’ll have a great chance at upending the Broncos.

Western Michigan averts crisis with pick six

WKU scored 10 unanswered points to jump to a 10-3 lead, and the Hilltoppers faced with a 2nd and 3 from the Western Michigan 14. Head coach Tyson Helton called a timeout with 74 seconds remaining in the half, hoping to extend the lead to double digits AND receive the ball at halftime. Perhaps WKU runs away with a First Responder Bowl with a score in the scenario.

Instead, Ty Storey’s pass to tight end Joshua Simon in the flat bounced off Simon and landed into the waiting arms of Western Michigan cornerback Kareem Ali. Ali reversed the field and sprinted 88 yards in the other direction for the Broncos’ lone offensive touchdown of the opening half. The interception ruined the fates of many halftime prop bets in Vegas, but it changed the entire complexion of the game and allowed Western Michigan to enter the second half with considerable momentum instead of a multi-score deficit.

Luck? No, Lucky Jackson is all skill

Lucky Jackson’s college career couldn't finish in a more spectacular manner. Jackson’s WKU career came full circle. As a freshman, he was redshirted while watching his Hilltoppers finish a season ranked for the first time in program history. The next year, he played a vital role on WKU’s offense in a conference championship campaign. Former head coach Jeff Brohm then left for Purdue, the program suffered two losing seasons in a row, but alas, there was light at the end of the tunnel for Jackson and the Hilltoppers.

In a resurgent 9-4 season, Jackson shattered his own single-game reception record in his final time suiting up in WKU colors. The wide receiver surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season for the first time in his career during the First Responder Bowl, hauling in 17 receptions for 148 yards. Jackson caught the lone Hilltoppers’ touchdown of the second half which also served as the final touchdown of the afternoon. He left Dallas as the surefire MVP after a historic performance of torching the Western Michigan secondary.

Heartbreaking finale for a talented senior class

QB Jon Wassink. RB LeVante Bellamy. RB Davon Tucker. WR Keith Mixon Jr. TE Giovanni Ricci. C Luke Juriga. DE Antonio Balabani. OLB Drake Spears. OLB Alex Grace. CB Anton Curtis. SS Justin Tranquill.

Western Michigan is losing a load of talented senior starters heading into this offseason. Many members of this senior class endured a time of transition for the program, working as the bridge between the P.J. Fleck era and the Tim Lester era. Several of these players’ first bowl game was the 2016 Cotton Bowl in the Dallas metroplex and their last stand was the 2019 First Responder Bowl in relatively the same geographical location.

The Broncos relied heavily on senior talent in 2019, and it’s difficult to witness the end of many great college careers as a heartbreaking bowl game defeat.