UPDATED: Hilltoppers defeat South Florida in Miami Beach Bowl

December 21, 2015: Western Kentucky players hoist the championship trophy after the Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park in Miami, Florida, on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Western Kentucky beat South Florida 45-35. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The 2015 Miami Beach Bowl was a game that had a little bit of everything. Lead changes, trick plays and drastic momentum shifts all played on a baseball diamond was the theme of a game that Hilltopper fans will never forget.

A close contest until the very end, the WKU football team defeated South Florida 45-35 to earn its second consecutive FBS bowl victory and tied a program record with their 12th win of the season. The momentous occasion capped of a championship year that is considered by many as one of the best seasons in WKU program history.

“It’s definitely a great day in WKU football history,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “USF is a good football team. They found ways to stop us. We weren’t hitting on all cylinders early on, but when you play good teams, that sometimes happens. The great teams are able to overcome that and find ways to adjust. I thought we found ways to adjust and take advantage of some things they were doing.”

The two teams exploded for a combined 1209 total yards of offense while the Hilltoppers got production from several star players. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, who was named Miami Beach Bowl MVP, finished with 461 yards and three touchdowns despite throwing two interceptions, receivers Nicholas Norris and Taywan Taylor both finished with over 100 receiving yards, two touchdowns for Norris, and Ace Wales erupted for 105 yards and two TDs.

The victory over the South Florida Bulls came against former player and Head Coach Willie Taggart. Taggart, who served three seasons as WKU’s head coach, and was a four-year letterwinner at quarterback from 1995-98, couldn’t get revenge over his previous team as the Hilltoppers ended the game on a 45-21 scoring run.

The bowl victory was also the final game for several Hilltopper players including Doughty. In the process of Monday’s game, Doughty surpassed 5,000 passing yards in the 2015 season, a first in program history. Over the past two seasons, the quarterback threw for 97 touchdowns, the most ever at the FBS level in consecutive seasons.

“The thing that I’ll take with me is all the victories, the guys,” Doughty said. “This has truly been the most fun year I’ve ever had as a football player, and I’ve been playing football for a long time. All those numbers, I give the credit to coach. He’s a heck of a playcaller. Guy’s a mastermind out there.”

It was a slow start to the game for both teams. The Bulls were forced to punt on their first two drives of the game, but the Hilltoppers didn’t fare much better. After an opening possession punt, WKU was stopped on 4th and 2 at the Bulls’ 21-yard line, keeping the score tied at zero.

USF was first to strike, conducting a five play, 62-yard drive that ended in a Quinton Flowers QB keeper that went 12-yards for the touchdown. With the Bulls leading at the end of the first quarter 7-0, the Hilltoppers were eager to respond. They had their longest drive of the game at the time before a Nigel Harris interception halted WKU in its tracks. The first career interception for the junior was the first takeaway of the game, and the Bulls took advantage of it.

USF extended it’s lead the following drive with a 34-yard rushing score by junior receiver Rodney Adams. The sweep play put the Bulls up 14-0 early in the second quarter. Finally, after a pair of punts, the WKU offense decided to wake up.

On the first play from their own 44-yard line, Doughty found Taylor for 53-yards on a flea flicker. The following play, Wales tumbled 13-yards into the end zone for the first Hilltopper score of the game. It looked like Wales fumbled before crossing the plane, but the play stood as a score, WKU catching a lucky break, now only trailed 14-7.

The defense was the next to step up, forcing a three-and-out on the following possession, this allowed the WKU offense to continue to heat up. Doughty drove his team all the way down to the USF 6-yard line before the Hilltoppers imploded. A personal foul penalty on redshirt junior lineman Forrest Lamp and back-to-back sacks took WKU out of field goal range, forcing the fourth punt of the day for the Hilltoppers.

A quick turnaround, another forced three-and-out by the WKU defense, allowed the Hilltoppers to have one more shot before halftime. Doughty completed five-straight passes to set up a 39-yard field goal, one that senior kicker Garrett Schwettman nailed to end the half.

A missed opportunity near the end of the first half haunted the Hilltoppers into the locker room, but they found themselves only trailing 14-10 at the midway point.

It was an explosive second half for both teams.

USF came out of the gate driving, but missed a 43-yard field goal attempt. Following the miss, the WKU offense struck quickly. Doughty found Nicholas Norris for a 69-yard touchdown, a career long for the redshirt sophomore, giving the Hilltoppers their first lead of the game, 17-14.

With the lead for the first time in the Miami Beach Bowl, the WKU defense continued to play well. The unit forced a following three-and-out, their fourth of the game, which allowed the offense to catch fire. Doughty found Norris again, this time a 55-yard score on a wide open wheel route to extend the Hilltoppers’ lead to 24-14 midway through the third.

After 24 unanswered points by the Hilltoppers, the Bulls finally responded in the form of a eight play, 92-yard drive ending with a 34-yard touchdown connection from running back Johnson to McCants. The trick play closed the gap to 24-21 and momentum began to shift once again, this time in favor of USF.

But the Hilltopper offense had other plans in mind, as they proceeded to march 69 yards in seven plays, capping the drive with a 9-yard rushing touchdown by sophomore Nacarius Fant on a reverse. After another three-and-out by the USF offense, Fant returned the next punt 37 yards and set up a 26-yard touchdown score on the next play, a strike from Doughty to senior receiver Jared Dangerfield. WKU led 38-21 at the end of three quarters, but the Bulls were far from done.

“We definitely do try to play an exciting brand of football on offense,” Brohm said. “We take a lot of pride in it. We try to score points, do a lot of things. Our defense is vastly improved this year. They play hard. We got better. Is everything perfect? No, but that’s what makes it fun. We’re constantly working to improve.”

USF went on to score 14 unanswered points to close the gap in the second annual Miami Beach Bowl. The first play of the fourth quarter, Flowers found Adams for a 53-yard touchdown pass, making the score 38-28. Next after a WKU three-and-out, Flowers found points once again, this time a 8-yard rushing touchdown. The score stood at 38-35 with 11 minutes remaining.

The WKU offense took the field looking to put some distance between them and the Bulls, but a deflected pass ended up as an interception by the Bull’s Eric Lee. USF now had the ball and a chance to tie the game, but Emilio Nadelman missed a 54-yard field goal wide left to keep the Hilltopper lead intact.

With the lead, and time on their side, another Hilltopper player decided to make a big play. Wales scored his second touchdown of the day after breaking a 42-yard rush for a score. His individual effort put WKU up 45-35 with just over five minutes remaining, which would prove to be the dagger.

The Hilltopper defense held through the final minutes of the game to give the Hilltoppers the 45-35 victory and the title of Miami Beach Bowl Champions.

“We knew it was going to be a challenging game.” Brohm said. “Our guys fought and battled and were able to win in the end but really that’s what makes the game fun, playing in these types of games, to win a bowl game of this caliber, in this great destination, you know we’re really happy.”