Saturday night's victory over Florida International (1-8, 0-5 Sun Belt) wasn't the prettiest win for Western Kentucky (6-2, 3-1 Sun Belt) this season.
But after vaulting the Toppers into bowl eligibility with four regular season games still to play in 2012, it's a win WKU Head Coach Willie Taggart and staff will take in stride.
WKU defeated the FIU Golden Panthers by a final score of 14-6 in Miami late Saturday night, largely in part because of several key plays made by the defense throughout the night.
The biggest play for the defense came early in the 1st quarter, when a trick play called by FIU almost led to a Golden Panther touchdown.
With 8:51 remaining in the 1st quarter, FIU quarterback Jake Medlock completed a lateral pass to receiver Wayne Times, who then launched a pass to another FIU receiver, Willis Wright.
The wide open Wright caught the ball at the WKU 35 yard line, and had nothing but green in front of him to waltz in for the touchdown.
But WKU sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling didn't give up on the play, despite Wright's 7 yard head-start on him, catching up to the FIU receiver inside the WKU 5 yard line.
Dowling forced Wright to fumble the ball away as the two collided into the endzone, and WKU cornerback Cam Thomas recovered the fumble, turning a certain 7-0 FIU lead into a WKU possession at their own 20.
"That (Dowling's strip) was awesome," Taggart said. "That was big-time by him.
"We challenged our defense after last week. I felt like we could play a lot better."
Smith has career night
Although Dowling's forced fumble was arguably the biggest play of the night, defensive end Quanterus Smith was undoubtly the Toppers MVP for the night, finishing with 5 sacks and 8 total tackles on the evening.
"He (Smith) is another guy we challenged," Taggart said. "We said, " 'Q', you have to play consistent, you have to play well all the time. We need you to show up this game.'
"He did just that. He showed up and really stepped up for this defense."
One of Smith's sacks came on the very last play of regulation, when FIU backup quarterback E.J Hilliard had one last chance to tie the game.
Hilliard received the snap at the WKU 21 yard line and scrambled to his right, hoping to buy more time for an FIU receiver to get open near WKU's endzone.
But Smith chased him down for his fifth and final sack on the evening, forcing a FIU fumble to end the game as time expired.
Despite the defense's big night, Smith said the WKU defense still has room for improvement.
"We still are not being disciplined, beating ourselves and stuff like that," Smith said. "There's stuff we still can work on.
I don't think it was our best defensive game by far."
Another big night for Andrews
Runningback Antonio Andrews led the WKU offense with 158 yards rushing on 27 carries, making six straight 100+ yard rushing games for the junior tailback.
Andrews also added a rushing touchdown on the night, a go-ahead 3 yard run that put the Toppers ahead 14-6 with 2:24 left in the game.
Quarterback Kawaun Jakes finished 14-of-21 passing for 128 yards and an interception.
The Toppers have a short turnaround next week, as they prepare to host MTSU on Thursday night, Nov. 1, with kickoff coming at 8:15 pm on ESPNU.
Tune in to InsideHilltopperSports.com for all the latest WKU recruiting and team news updates as the Thursday night matchup vs. MTSU approaches.