Hilltoppers fall to Alabama in valiant effort

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Lucky Jackson (11) attempts to catch a pass under coverage from Alabama’s defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) during WKU’s 10-38 loss on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, at Bryant–Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Evan Heichelbech

A week after opening its football season with a 46-14 blowout of Rice University and piling up 649 total yards of offense, WKU traveled to the home of the defending national champions and fell 38-10 to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Hats off to Alabama, they’re a great football team and we knew that coming in,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “They did a great job on defense as they always do. They were able to shut us down and we didn’t have a whole lot of answers. I thought our defense played hard and I liked the fight in our team.”

WKU redshirt junior quarterback Mike White struggled against the Tide, following up his 517-yard debut going 10-24 for 135 yards and an interception. But if there’s any defense in the country that can make the nation’s leading passer look average, it’s one led by Nick Saban.

“They were bigger, faster and stronger than Conference-USA opponents and they gave us a run for our money,” senior offensive tackle Forrest Lamp said. “It’s frustrating when the offense isn’t clicking like it normally is. We’re used to scoring 40 or 50 points a game, so it’s frustrating.”

What White failed to accomplish on offense, the WKU defensive line tried to make up for on the other side of the ball.  

After a three-and-out by WKU to start the game, Alabama sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley ripped off the first of many big plays for the Tide, taking a pitch 48 yards to the WKU 31-yard line. But the Hilltopper defense forced the offense off the field resulting in a missed field goal by Alabama.

“Our defense played unbelievable,” Lamp said. “All the credit goes to our defense, holding the number one team in the nation to 38 points. They were the ones who kept us in the game.”

Along with the linebackers, the defensive front forced five three-and-outs on the day, limiting touchdown scoring opportunities for the Tide. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Joel Iyeigbuniwe led the team with 10 tackles and sack, including one tackle for a loss.

“He’s done a very good job,” Brohm said of Iyiegbuniwe. “He’s a smart, athletic player who can run. I like the fact that he competed hard and played well in this game.”

The Hilltopper secondary was an entirely different story, however, giving up one big play after another to Ridley and redshirt junior receiver ArDarius Stewart. The two wideouts combined for 2 touchdowns and torched the Tops’ secondary for 237 of Alabama’s 475 total yards.

“They’ve got athletes all over. All of their players have the measurables and they’re tough to defend,” Brohm said. “Their perimeter players are good and they have a good young quarterback who can run the ball, move the pocket with him and he can chuck it deep. They obviously are the best team for a reason.”

WKU’s offense failed to string together enough positive plays to move the chains, Brohm didn’t forget his bag of tricks and exciting brand of football in Bowling Green.

After 12 consecutive pass plays to open the game, it appeared that redshirt senior running back Ace Wales was going to record WKU’s first carry of the game, until he pitched the ball back to White who found senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor for a 59-yard gain on Brohm’s patented flea flicker play.

The big gain led to a 26-yard field goal three plays later, giving the Tops their first points of the game.

“We knew we had to take some shots up the field and in one-on-one match-ups, but unfortunately we didn’t win,” Brohm said. “We had the one trick play early but other than that it was hard to move the ball effectively and get yards. They make you earn it.”

The next time WKU regained possession, Brohm dialed up another familiar play in a double-reverse pass with junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant as the passer. Fant was 2-3 on the play last season, but Saturday’s attempt resulted in an interception and a big momentum shift for the Tide.

The turnover sparked a 67-yard drive for Alabama, capped off by a Ridley touchdown reception.

“I probably got a little greedy,” Brohm said. “It was supposed to be a reverse pass where he runs it a lot farther and only throws it if it’s wide open. He pulled up right away which I wasn’t very happy with. He normally makes better decisions than that, but it happened and you move on.”

One series later, the Tide took almost all of the remaining air out of the Hilltoppers with a 55-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Alabama senior safety Eddie Jackson.

WKU entered halftime trailing 17-3 and was never able to get any traction, surrendering 21 second-half points.

White left the game in the third quarter with a head injury. Graduate transfer Tyler Ferguson replaced him, going 7-10 for 55 yards.

Sophomore quarterback Drew Eckels entered the game late and threw the only WKU touchdown of the game to redshirt freshman Lucky Jackson.

“I think Mike will be OK,” Brohm said. “He got a little doosie on the unnecessary roughness penalty where they threw him down. We decided that he wasn’t all where he needed to be and we brought our other quarterbacks in.”

Despite the messy finish to the second half, Iyiegbuniwe said that there is a lot his team can learn from the loss.

“We’ll learn a lot,” Iyeigbuniwe said. “I think as a defense and offense, against the number one team in the nation, we did pretty well. But of course there’s things that we can always improve on so we’ll watch the film, see what we can correct and move on from there.”

After a week in which they played “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Dixieland Delight” during practice to get used to the crowd noise in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Hilltoppers will change the tune and prepare to take on Miami (OH) in another non-conference match-up.

Kickoff for that game is set for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17.