Hilltoppers prepare for challenge against Vanderbilt

Junior quarterback Mike White (14) throws to junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant (1) during WKU’s 31-24 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio. Evan Boggs/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Coming off a tough 31-24 victory over Miami (Ohio), the schedule won’t get any easier for the WKU football team with Vanderbilt University making the trip to Bowling Green on Saturday.

“This is a very good football team,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said of the Commodores in a press conference Monday. “They match up very well against us. Their defense is outstanding. We didn’t turn the ball over last year, and they still held us to 14 points.”

In what is arguably the biggest non-conference home game in recent memory for the Hilltoppers, Saturday’s contest is a rematch from a year ago. WKU defeated Vanderbilt in Nashville by a final score of 14-12 on the first night of the 2015 season.

This year’s game has potential to be another defensive slugfest with the way both teams’ defenses are playing to this point in the season.

“Our defensive staff has done a great job,” Brohm said. “We’ve got quite a few guys on that side of the ball, so we’re able to rotate guys in. There’s not a huge drop-off so we’re not scared to do that. The defense has played at a very high level and they’re going to have to continue to do that.”

Vanderbilt (1-2) comes to Bowling Green boasting the 28th ranked defense in the nation despite giving up 38 points in a 38-7 loss to Georgia Tech last week. While the Commodores struggled to stop Georgia Tech’s patented option offense a week ago, Head Coach Derek Mason’s defense has all the physical tools to give an offense some problems.

“They’re really tough, they’re really disciplined, and they’re an SEC defense,” redshirt senior center Max Halpin said. “We’re going to have to play our best, and we’re going to have to be on point, so we’re going to need a good week of practice.”

Halpin and company will be tasked with stopping a formidable Vanderbilt front without senior left tackle and captain Forrest Lamp.

Brohm said Lamp will miss Saturday’s game and will “be out for an extended period of time” after sustaining a left leg injury against Miami (Ohio).

“He’s been the rock of our team,” Brohm said. “Up to this point he was very durable. I hate it for him because he’s been very healthy, he works hard, and he’s in great shape. It’ll hurt our football team not having his leadership and his expertise out there on the field.”

Lamp likely won’t be alone on the sidelines this weekend as running backs Anthony “Ace” Wales and D’Andre Ferby along with senior safety Marcus Ward are all listed as questionable.

“It’s always a problem when somebody goes down, but we have a lot of depth and a lot of experience on our O-line so to have somebody like Jimmie Sims step up and move Diesel [Darrell Williams] over, I don’t think it’ll be that much of a problem,” Halpin said.

The only positive side of injuries for a young football team like Brohm’s is that in a usual starter’s absence, young players like freshman running back Quinton Baker get an opportunity to come in and make an impact early.

“We’ve got a lot of guys learning on the job, and sometimes [injuries] happen,” Brohm said. “We’ve got to be good enough to overcome that and get our guys mentally and physically ready for that challenge. Regardless of who’s in there we expect them to perform.”

Baker carried the ball 20 times against Miami (Ohio), which was good enough for 103 yards and the first rushing touchdown of his career. With the backfield in limbo for the first couple weeks of the season, Brohm hopes Baker can be both a short and long term answer.

“I thought we made strides,” Brohm said of the rushing attack against Miami (Ohio). “I’d like to be better than what we were, but that’s where we’re at right now. We’ve got to find a few more creative ways to run the football. [Vanderbilt] will present a lot of problems in the running game so we’ll have to be creative and find ways to get something going and get some rushing yards.”

As Baker and the rest of the WKU backfield try to figure out a way to manufacture rushing yards against the Commodores, redshirt junior linebacker T.J. McCollum will be trying to stop the Vanderbilt backfield from doing the same.

The Commodores feature the SEC’s leading rusher to this point in the season in junior running back Ralph Webb.

“We always come out wanting to be the best, and to be the best defense you have to beat the best offense,” McCollum said. “We played against some tough offenses, especially against Alabama … they’re known for running the ball and I feel like we stopped them pretty good. This is another SEC team that likes to run the ball … It’s going to be exciting and fun just showing what we can do against those teams.”

Last year, Webb gained 70 yards on 18 attempts against the Toppers in Nashville, and he’s already racked up 377 rushing yards this season on a rate of 5.6 yards per carry. Webb’s production combined with the fact that the Commodores have seen the kinds of looks a WKU defense can bring makes it all the more important for McCollum, and the defense as a whole to be sharp.

“I’ve never been with a program where an SEC school came to a lower conference school, so it’s going to be a very exciting game,” McCollum, a UAB transfer, said. “Hopefully all of our fans come out and support us.”

In a game where points could be scarce and defense can be critical for a victory, the crowd and atmosphere can be a big advantage.

“[A big home crowd] gets us really excited,” Halpin said. “It pumps us up and gives us an extra edge, but it shouldn’t just be for this game because it’s Vandy, it should be for every game.”

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