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College football: Louisiana Tech falls to Western Kentucky in Conference USA title game

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — In a rematch of the highest scoring game in Conference USA this season, Louisiana Tech and WKU lived up to the hype in the 2016 Dynacraft Conference USA Football Championship Game, which the Hilltoppers defeated the Bulldogs, 58-44, Saturday at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.

Louisiana Tech (8-5) and WKU (10-3) combined for 1,163 yards in another classic shootout between the two teams in what was the highest-scoring Conference USA Championship Game in league history and the highest-scoring conference championship game all-time for any FBS conference..

Trailing by a touchdown heading to the fourth quarter, LA Tech kicked a field goal with five minutes left in the game to make it a four-point game, but WKU responded with back-to-back scores, a field goal followed by a 13-yard touchdown run by Anthony Wales to clinch back-to-back conference titles for WKU. Wales was named the game’s most valuable player after recording five touchdowns in the contest.

Ryan Higgins was 35-of-57 passing for 502 yards and three touchdowns, while Carlos Henderson caught nine passes for 202 receiving yards and a touchdown. Trent Taylor added 108 receiving yards of his own, while Kam McKnight saw the end zone twice, once through the air and another on the ground.

WKU’s Mike White was 21-of-31 for 421 passing yards and three touchdown passes, while Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris combined for 344 receiving yards with Taylor accounting for two touchdown receptions. Wales added five touchdowns combined on the day for the Hilltoppers.

After holding WKU to a 32-yard field goal on the opening drive of the game, Carlos Henderson took the first play from scrimmage for the Bulldogs 74 yards into WKU territory to the 10-yard line. From there, the Bulldogs could not punch it in for a touchdown, but LA Tech did tie the game at 3-3 on a 25-yard field goal by Jonathan Barnes.

On its next offensive possession, WKU drove 70 yards down the field before Anthony Wales recorded his 21st rushing touchdown of the season, a 15-yard score to put the Hilltoppers ahead, 10-3, in the first quarter.

After forcing a LA Tech punt, L’Jarius Sneed gave the Bulldogs a boost with a 48-yard interception returned for a touchdown, just the second time in Conference USA Championship history that a team has recorded a pick-six in the title game. It marked Sneed’s first career interception and tied the game, 10-10, with under six minutes to play in the first quarter.

Still in the first quarter, WKU drove down the field once again and capped off a 75-yard drive with a 26-yard rushing touchdown by Wales, his second score of the game, to give the Hilltoppers a 17-10 lead over LA Tech.

The Bulldogs responded with a 63-yard drive of their own that resulted in a six-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Higgins to Carlos Henderson to tie the game once again, 17-17, with 1:34 remaining in the opening quarter of play.

On WKU’s final drive of the first quarter, the Hilltoppers used a 55-yard completion from Mike White to Taywan Taylor to set up Anthony Wales’ third touchdown of the game, this one a 10-yard touchdown reception to give WKU a 24-17 lead heading into the second quarter.

On its first possession of the second quarter, LA Tech responded by orchestrating a 79-yard drive that was capped off by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Higgins to Jarred Craft to knot the game once again at 24-24 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the second period.

Taywan Taylor put WKU on top on the next possession with a 45-yard touchdown reception, which gave the Hilltoppers a 31-24 lead over LA Tech early in the second quarter.

Jonathan Barnes made it a four-point game midway through the second quarter by connecting on a 36-yard field goal to cut WKU’s lead to 31-27 with 8:26 remaining in the first half.

WKU extended its lead to 11 points later in the second when Mike White’s 4-yard pass found the hands of Taywan Taylor to make it a 38-27 advantage for the Hilltoppers with 5:05 remaining in the quarter.

To begin the third quarter, Higgins led Louisiana Tech to midfield before scrambling on third and 15 only to connect with a wide open Kam McKnight near the endzone for a 53-yard touchdown to cut LA Tech’s deficit to 38-34 less than two minutes into the second half.

On the ensuing kickoff, WKU muffed the return, allowing Roland Dunn to recover and give the Bulldogs ideal field position at the Hilltopper 29-yard line. From there, Louisiana Tech drove down to the 1-yard line before Kam McKnight carried it in for his second touchdown in less than five minutes to give LA Tech a 41-38 lead over WKU, the Bulldogs’ first lead of the game.

WKU knotted the game at 41-41 thanks to a 28-yard field goal by Skyler Simcox with 5:45 remaining in the third quarter.

After a 22-yard punt by Logan McPherson, WKU took over at LA Tech’s 40-yard line before a pass complete to Taywan Taylor set up Anthony Wales’ fourth touchdown of the game to put the Hilltoppers ahead, 48-41, with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.

Barnes helped LA Tech cut WKU’s lead to 48-44 at the start of the fourth quarter by connecting on a 24-yard field goal, his third field goal of the game.

Following that score, WKU gave the Bulldogs a gift by coughing up the kickoff return for the second time in the game, which was recovered by Elliot Blankenship to give LA Tech the ball on consecutive drives, but the Bulldogs could not get anything going offensively and was forced to punt it back to WKU.

The Hilltoppers made it a 7-point game midway through the fourth quarter when Simcox connected on a 34-yard field goal with 7:19 remaining in regulation to extend WKU’s lead.

The Bulldogs will now await Sunday’s bowl announcement to find out their next opponent.

— Russell Hedges, rhedges@bossierpress.com