Record-setting Reed lifts Western Kentucky past S. Alabama

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Prolific Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed has a knack for finishing a season with a flourish.

Reed passed for four touchdowns and a New Orleans Bowl-record 497 yards, leading Western Kentucky to a 44-23 victory over South Alabama on Wednesday night.

“He played his most complete game tonight,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “Elite players, when they’re put on a platform … they show up.”

It was just the latest memorable season-ending performance for Reed. He set Division II title-game records in 2019 by passing for 523 yards and six TDs in West Florida’s 48-40 victory over Minnesota State.

Reed’s bowl total gave him 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns passing this season, which leads the nation in both categories — for now.

Reed entered the the game ranked second nationally in yards passing behind Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., who has 4,354 yards passing. Penix plays against Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.

“I know Michael Pennix will pass me,” Reed said. “But it’s a blessing to at least be able to lead right now and be able to play in this offense.”

Reed’s touchdown total puts him three ahead of Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, USC’s Caleb Williams and Houston’s Clayton Tune, each with 37. Tune and Williams await bowl games, and Stroud could play twice more if Ohio State wins its semifinal match-up with Georgia in the College Football Playoff.

The Hilltoppers also set a New Orleans Bowl record with 522 team yards passing. Receiver Dalvin Smith threw a 25-yard TD pass to Jaylen Hall on a play that started with Reed’s backward pass to Smith.

South Alabama’s Carter Bradley passed for 360 yards and three touchdowns, and was intercepted twice. Much of his production came in the second half with his team down by three or more TDs.

“We did not play anywhere near to our standard,” South Alabama coach Kane Wommack said. “We did not come out of the gate well. We did not call it well and we did not execute well. And when you look at that, that is a complete loss that you can point to nobody other than the head coach. So, that game is on me and I did not have this team prepared.”

Both teams combined for 74 completions, tying an NCAA record for overall completed passes in a bowl game.

Reed considered the transferring in recent weeks before deciding against it. His first performance since recommitting to WKU left him gratified by that choice.

“Tonight was a perfect example of why I chose to come back and what’s going to happen here next year,” Reed said.

Two of Reed’s scoring strikes went to Malachi Corley, who increased his TD’s receiving total to 11 this season.

Reed also threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Smith on the game’s opening possession and hit tight end Joey Beljan for a 27-yard score on his second series.

After the Jaguars failed on fourth-and-4 from the WKU 46, the Hilltoppers needed just three plays to take a three-TD lead on Smith’s receiver pass to Hall.

“When our offense is hitting on all cylinders, it stresses the other team out,” Helton said. “Tonight we applied that pressure to South Alabama where they felt like they had to get out of their game.”

Georgia Tech transfer Kaleb Oliver made his fourth interception this season on a pass tipped by defensive tackle Lorenzo Hernandez, thwarting South Alabama’s first scoring threat.

The Jaguars didn’t score until Diego Guajardo’s 30-yard field goal with 1:38 left in the half — enough time for Reed to lead the Hilltoppers to a fourth TD, in part because of two defensive penalties as time ran out.

Given an untimed down from the 1, WKU cashed in when Reed delivered short forward toss to Corley crossing against the flow of the offense and around the right end to make it 31-3 at halftime.

THE TAKEAWAY

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers came in averaging 339 yards passing and had 354 by halftime. They also had three players with more than 100 yards receiving: Smith (145), Hall (138) and Corley (114).

South Alabama: With the exception of Yam Banks’ sixth interception this season on a leaping, one-handed snag, the game was a humbling affair for a Jaguars defense that came in allowing 302.6 yards of total offense per game and hadn’t allowed any previous opponent more than 438. South Alabama fell to 0-3 in bowls.

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