Hilltoppers fall in overtime to Vanderbilt

Redshirt junior quarterback Mike White (14) sits on the field after WKU’s two-point conversion attempt was intercepted in overtime, ending the game and giving Vanderbilt the 31-30 win Saturday, Sept. 24 at Smith Stadium. The loss is the Hilltopper’s first at home since Oct. 4, 2014. Jeff Brown/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

When WKU and Vanderbilt last met on opening night one season ago, the game was decided on the goal line as time expired.

Current junior defensive back Joe Brown stopped Vanderbilt’s Nathan Marcus short of the goal line, sealing a 14-12 victory for the Hilltoppers. Fast forward to Saturday and the situation remained the same, only with a different outcome.

After the Commodores scored with time expiring in regulation and went ahead by a touchdown in overtime, WKU Head Coach Jeff Brohm faced a big decision: kick the extra point to extend the game, or go for the two-point conversion and the win.


He elected to go with the latter, and watched karma take over as redshirt junior quarterback Mike White’s pass deflected off of senior running back Ace Wales’ helmet giving Vanderbilt a 31-30 victory.

“I’m always aggressive but I just really felt once again … our defense was wearing down and it looked like they were going to be able to score at will at that point,” Brohm said. “Our defense had played great for three quarters and I thought we had a chance to win.”

It was anything but perfect for the Toppers as they took the field to play in front of a record crowd of 23,674 people at Smith Stadium Saturday.

WKU had three turnovers to Vandy’s one, and accumulated 11 penalties for 88 yards.

“We lost the turnover battle and statistically that’s what happens –– you lose the game,” Wales said. “We have to put more emphasis on protecting the ball … we just have to keep playing hard and put that game behind us.”

Brohm’s offense started out sharp with a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on WKU’s first possession of the game.

White drove the Toppers down to the Commodores’ 15-yard line where he handed off to senior wide receiver Nicholas Norris for an 11-yard pickup on fourth down and one.

Wales punched it in on the next play for the Toppers after earning the start at running back despite being listed as questionable all week long.

The early score would be the last one for a while, as the Topper offense cooled off quickly in the scorching Bowling Green heat. The defense, however, was just starting to heat up.

Nick Holt’s defense dominated the first half, outplaying the highly touted defense of Vanderbilt early. After its first four drives, Vanderbilt had more punts than first downs. The chains weren’t moved forward for the Commodores until the 10:20 mark of the second quarter.

With a chance to capitalize the next time WKU regained possession at the start of the second quarter, Norris charged toward the end zone after hauling in a pass from White, but was stripped of the ball at the Vandy five-yard line, turning the ball back over to the Commodores.

With the game destined to end in a similar, 14-12 slugfest as it did a year ago, graduate transfer Tyler Ferguson replaced White with less than nine minutes remaining in the first half, and ripped a 61-yard touchdown pass to junior wide out Nacarius Fant.

“We had a plan going into the game that [Ferguson] was going to play a series in the second quarter,” Brohm said. “We were doing it regardless of the score and I thought he came in and performed well. It was good to get him experience.”

Still, the Commodores wouldn’t go away as Shurmur orchestrated a 77-yard drive, resulting in a Ralph Webb touchdown leaving just 2:16 on the clock for the Tops.

After a slow start for Webb, the SEC’s leading rusher started to figure out the WKU defense, finishing with 95 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s a little guy,”graduate student linebacker Keith Brown said. “You can’t really see him behind a big SEC line. He’s an electric player. We just couldn’t keep him contained.”

Despite out-gaining the Commodores 248 yards to 84, WKU took just a 14-7 lead to the locker room.

“From the start, those turnovers made a big difference,” redshirt senior tackle Darrell Williams said. “Without those turnovers we would’ve possibly been up by three touchdowns. That made a big difference.”

White re-entered the game midway through the third quarter but couldn’t find much success. After Norris converted another fourth down in Vandy territory, White’s pass was deflected and intercepted at the five-yard line.

With all the momentum seemingly shifting Vandy’s way, Wales gave some life to an offense thirsty for anything positive by scampering for a 20-yard touchdown, giving WKU a 21-14 lead with 11:33 left to play.

Wales played big after sitting out last week at Miami (Ohio). The senior finished with 157 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought Ace ran outstanding,” Brohm said. “Ace sucked it up and played extremely well. He definitely helps our offense move the ball down the field.”

Six minutes of game time and one Vanderbilt field goal later, Wales carried the Tops on a clock-eating drive as he piled up 65 yards on the ground and set up a 25-yard redemption field goal for Nuss, putting the Tops up 24-17.

The field goal was enough to extend the lead, but not enough to take the Commodores totally out of the fight.

With 1:02 remaining in the game, Shurmur and company took the ball 75 yards down the field and tied the game with a leaping Webb diving across the line as time expired.

“I like our defense,” Brohm said. “I think we’ve got good football players and I think they love football, but was I disappointed to let them drive all the way down the field with one minute left and no timeouts? Yes, I really was against a team that can’t throw the ball.”

This was the first time an SEC school had ever come to Bowling Green, and it was arguably the biggest nonconference home game in WKU history. Regardless of the outcome, Brohm was grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s great for us,” Brohm said. “Anytime we can play an SEC opponent, that’s how you measure yourself. We wanted to come in and fight, try to find a way to win and unfortunately we came up short. These are the games we want to schedule. This is what it’s all about. This is real football here, playing against a high-level in front of a great crowd.”

The Toppers will look to rebound from the loss next Saturday when Houston Baptist comes to town. Kickoff for that game is set at 6 p.m.

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.