CRAWFORD | WKU can't find the dagger at Illinois, falls 42-34 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | WKU can't find the dagger at Illinois, falls 42-34

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First-year WKU coach Jeff Brohm walks off the field after his team's 42-34 loss at Illinois. (AP Photo) First-year WKU coach Jeff Brohm walks off the field after his team's 42-34 loss at Illinois. (AP Photo)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WDRB) -- A year ago, the Western Kentucky University football team faced a power conference opponent on its home field and the wheels fell off, with seven turnovers leading to a blowout loss at Tennessee.

On Saturday in the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium, the wheels didn't fall off, but after leading 27-21 there was just enough wobbling to cost the Hilltoppers a signature upset in a 42-34 loss before a crowd of 38,561.

Down 21-17, WKU got a boost when defensive back Wonderful Terry stripped Illinois receiver Malik Turner of the ball and raced 95 yards for a touchdown that put the Hilltoppers up 24-21. Two plays later, Prince Charles Iworah intercepted Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt and set the WKU offense up at the Illinois 7-yard line.

WKU had all the momentum. Wonderful Terry was trending nationally on Twitter. A touchdown would put them two scores ahead and plant more seeds of doubt on the Illinois sideline. But they missed that opportunity.

WATCH: WKU coach Jeff Brohm talks about his team's performance at Illinois.

"We needed to go in and score (a touchdown) right there," WKU coach Jeff Brohm said. "We could have put a dagger in them if we could have scored, and we didn't."

WKU settled for a field goal, and Illinois answered with two big plays -- a 62-yard TD pass and a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown -- to take control of the game, eventually scoring 21 straight points before WKU added a late TD.

"Without question I think we let one get away," Brohm said. "We were right there in the ballgame, played well in the first half, played hard. They got the ball in the second half, took it down and scored. They were able to throw the ball and protect the quarterback, so we weren't able to get much pressure on him. Their quarterback threw for way too many yards. Our defense got us two turnovers. . . . We didn't take advantage of opportunities and that hurt us."

WKU expected Illinois to run a ball-control type of offense to keep the ball out of the hands of its speed-up offense. It did, but not in quite the way WKU figured. Illinois got its possession passing game going in the second half, often emptying the backfield in favor of five wide receivers, and picking the Hilltoppers apart with passes into the flat.

After WKU ran 50 first-half plays and held a 3:08 edge in time of possession, Illinois ran 46 plays in the second half and held  the ball for 21:40 to just 8:20 for WKU.

"We expected them to try to run it down our throats but they did the opposite," WKU linebacker Nick Holt said. "They're trying to get the ball to the edges with some really good receivers. When they did try to run the ball, we stuffed it pretty good. . . . We expected them to come out and run the ball more than they did. Those short little passers were covered pretty well and we rallied up and make the tackles most of the time. But then sometimes we'd get them in third-and-12 and they would get the first down. That's really frustrating."

Illinois converted five of six third-down chances in the second half. Wes Lunt, its transfer quarterback, completed 35 of 50 passes for 456 yards and three touchdowns.

WKU was able to establish its running game early as Illinois spread itself out to defend the Hilltoppers passing game. Allen rushed for 112 yards on 19 first-half carries, but Illinois addressed that problem at halftime and he gained only 10 yards on five second half carries.

Doughty completed 28 of 48 passes for 297 yards, but his first interception in 176 attempts was a costly one.

"The turnovers . . . and when you can't get off the field on third downs, those are things that hurt us last year, too," Brohm said. "We need to go back to the drawing board and correct those things. But I did think our guys played hard. We came out ready to play."

WKU continues its September on the road on Saturday with its inaugural game in Conference USA at Middle Tennessee State.

"We're a good football team," Brohm said. "I think we can compete with everybody we play. We have guys who are getting better every week. . . . Unfortunately when you play good football teams you can't make mistakes. You've got to be more efficient, take advantage of the opportunities when they're there, and you've got to put the dagger in them when you have the chance."

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