Vanderbilt runs over and away from WKU in Nashville

WKU running back D’Andre Ferby (32) is brought down by Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jonathan Wynn (49) at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday, November 3

Sam Porter

WKU looked to defeat an SEC foe for the second time in three years when the Hilltoppers traveled to Nashville on Saturday to take on Vanderbilt.

Redshirt senior quarterback Mike White was sacked five times and the WKU running backs accumulated just 14 rushing yards in a 31-17 loss. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Lucky Jackson caught seven passes for 135 yards, but it wasn’t enough as the Hilltoppers failed to find the end zone the entire second half. 

Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb finished with 104 of the team’s 174 rushing yards. 

“We just have to stay together and finish games,” Jackson said. “We have to continue to finish games the way we start them. We’re right there, we’re doing everything we need to do. We just have to continue to have faith in each other.” 

Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur drove the Commodores 75 yards in 11 plays on the game’s opening drive, capping it off with a 4-yard touchdown strike to Trent Sherfield on 3rd and goal. The Commodore defense forced a 3-and-out on WKU’s first possession, and it appeared the Power 5 school may have their way with the two-time defending Conference USA champions.

However, the WKU defense stepped up on its next possession, forcing a Commodores 3-and-out to give White and company a chance to tie it up.

Facing 3rd and 9, White found Jackson for a big gain to keep the drive alive. On the following play, White threw it to senior receiver Nacarius Fant behind the line of scrimmage, and Fant found sophomore running back Quinton Baker wide open on the other side of the field for a 25-yard touchdown to tie the game. The score counted as Fant’s third touchdown pass of his career and Baker’s first receiving touchdown of his career. 

“We’ve had that play in for a couple weeks now,” Fant said. “First off, White had to make sure it was a backwards throw to me. Quinton Baker took his time to get out there and beat his cornerback and he was wide open in the end zone. When I first caught the ball I couldn’t see him and I got a little bit of room and made the throw.” 

The two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, as Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb ran for an 8-yard touchdown and White ran it in from 3 yards out on a zone read to make the score 14-14.

The Commodores got the football back with less than two minutes to play in the first half. Vanderbilt ran the football twice for minimal gain in attempt to run the clock out and get to the locker room in a tie. Sanford elected to call timeout after each run, in hopes his offense would get the ball back with a chance to take the lead before the half.

Instead, Shurmur found a receiver on third and long to keep the drive alive, and put the Commodores in a position to score again. 

Five plays later, a bizarre play changed the momentum of the ball game. Shurmur threw the football down the field, and freshman defensive back Antwon Kincade broke it up — or at least he thought. The ball went off the foot of the intended receiver and fell into the hands of receiver Trey Ellis for a 31-yard touchdown to give Vanderbilt a 21-14 lead right before the half. 

“We wanted to get the ball back and try to score,” Sanford said about the decision on calling timeouts. “We wanted to be aggressive and find a way to get another score before halftime knowing we had the ball to start the second half. That was a big drive for them and the play itself was one of those that you look at and we defended it well. We got a pass breakup and the ball pops up right into the receiver’s hands and they get a score before the half.” 

White drove the Hilltoppers down the field for their final scoring drive to open the second half as redshirt junior kicker kicker Ryan Nuss converted a 29-yard field goal to cut the Commodore lead to four.

From that point on, the offensive line began to fall apart. The running game found no success, putting all the pressure on White and the receivers to make a play. White was sacked four times in the second half alone and was often running from the pocket to buy time. Late in the fourth quarter, White was forced to leave the game with an injury. White walked off the field on his own strength and doesn’t appear that he will miss next week’s contest. 

“We have got to solve that now,” Sanford said about the run game. “We’ve got to find ways to run the football, or its going to be tough sledding every game no matter who you play.” 

The Commodores put up the final 10 points of the game to come out with a 31-17 victory and defeat WKU for the second consecutive season. The loss drops the Hilltoppers to 5-4 (3-2 C-USA) as WKU fails to clinch bowl eligibility for the second straight week. WKU travels to Marshall(6-3, 3-2 C-USA) next week in a C-USA East showdown. 

“We have three games left, two of which are significant rivals,” Sanford said. “Each one of those games we’re fighting to get bowl eligibility. We’re not going to make excuses. We have a lot of football left.”