(KNOE 8 Sports) - WKU is not a fan of Joe Aillet Stadium.
For the second time in three seasons, WKU came to Ruston and left on the short end of the scoreboard, this time a 55-52 loss to Louisiana Tech in front of 17,978 fans on Thursday night.
In between those two losses? WKU won 13 straight Conference USA games.
“We knew we were playing the defending champion coming in here,” said Tech head coach Skip Holtz. “We knew it was going to be a challenge: 13-game winning streak, longest conference win streak in the country. We knew they wouldn't go away. We talked to our players about it was going to be a 12-round heavyweight fight, and it's not going to be over till the very end. And you know, I'm just really proud of our players the way they were able to compete in there and they were able to get the win.”
Louisiana Tech quarterback Ryan Higgins threw for 454 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Bulldogs to the C-USA shootout, snapping the Hilltoppers 13-game league winning streak. The last time WKU lost in Conference USA play prior to Thursday night was in 2014 in a 59-10 loss to LA Tech at The Joe.
LA Tech (3-3, 2-1 C-USA) built a 21-point fourth quarter lead but saw WKU (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) storm back to cut the deficit to 55-52. The Hilltoppers even had a chance to win in the final three minutes after stopping LA Tech on a third-down-and-one play and forcing a Bulldog punt.
WKU took over on its own 21-yard line but on the first play from scrimmage Bulldog defensive lineman Aaron Brown sacked Hilltopper quarterback Mike White forcing a fumble and LA Tech teammate Jaylon Ferguson recovered. With WKU out of timeouts, the Bulldogs ran the final 2:04 off the clock to seal the win.
“Yeah, the (defense) ended up with a couple of them tonight, which was really nice to see,” said Holtz. “We've talked about our turnover woes, and it certainly isn't pretty and there's so much we've got to get fixed. But tonight with the game on the line, our defense came up with a big one.”
Higgins had another impressive night under center. For the fourth straight game – and now a stretch of 17 quarters – the senior signal caller didn’t throw an interception while completing 33-of-45 passes. Higgins has 17 touchdown passes and only two interceptions on the season.
“Ryan Higgins continues to protect the ball,” Holtz said. “I get mad at him. You know, I get mad at him. I yell, scream and holler, and he looks at me and like with a "yes, sir, are you done, I've got to go run a football team." He's poised. He's protecting the ball. He's running the offense. I just couldn't be more proud of the progress that he's made and the things he's doing on the field.”
One of the big reasons for Higgins’ success Thursday night was the return of wide receiver Carlos Henderson, who missed the last six quarters with an injury. Henderson ended the night with 8 receptions for a career-high 232 yards and three touchdowns, including scoring plays of 22-, 37- and 63-yards in the first half.
“232 yards worth made a difference,” said Holtz, referring to Henderson’s big night. “I'm telling you, you look at what Trent has had to do carrying the load all by himself. They came out here, and really, they rolled everything to Trent. They rolled everything to Trent, and that left Carlos one-on-one. And pretty much the whole first half, we were able to take advantage of it and exploit it a little bit.
“But Carlos was healthy. We haven't had him for the last two weeks and so to get him back out there tonight really made a huge difference. Like I said, he went for 232 and it was good to have him back.”
With Tech leading 52-31 entering the fourth quarter, WKU scored with 14:05 to play to cut the deficit to 52-38. The Bulldogs then drove 38 yards on six plays before stalling on the WKU 37-yard line. Holtz called on senior kicker Jonathan Barnes for a 54-yard field goal attempt. Barnes kick was plenty long and glanced off the left goal past and through to up the advantage to 55-38 with 11:00 to play. The 54-yard field goal was a career long and tied for the third longest in program history.
It would prove to be the difference.
“Yeah, Jonathan, he's been a superstar,” Holtz said. “I'm sitting there going, all right, it's fourth down and Jonathan is right there. He goes, ‘Coach, listen, I've got it. I mean, I've got it.’
“I just have great confidence in him. I mean, everybody was upset we missed the field goal at Arkansas, but nobody was more upset or determined than he was. And I don't believe he's missed one since. You know, I'm just really proud of him, the way he's bounced back and the way he's competed, he's an unbelievable competitor.”
WKU scored two more TDs – the second coming on a blocked punt returned for a TD with 5:02 to play, setting up the final drama of the ending.
In addition to Henderson’s big night, Trent Taylor had another ho-hum performance, catching 13 passes for 108 yards. Jared Craft added a career-high eight receptions for 53 yards and two receiving TDs while rushing for 78 yards and one score.
White led WKU with 340 yards and five touchdowns through the air.