Primetime | Hilltoppers head to Vandy for season opener

WKU’s Brandon Doughty (12) releases the ball toward Tyler Higbee (82) during Friday’s 67-66 overtime victory over No. 19 Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia. Higbee would catch the pass and score for a seven-yard touchdown. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

WKU will begin its 96th season of football tonight as the team travels to Nashville to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. The game marks the start of what could be the most highly anticipated football season for WKU in program history.

Coming off their first Football Bowl Subdivision bowl victory—the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl in 2014—and returning nearly 73 percent of their letterwinners, including senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers have entered the 2015 season with a championship attitude. Second-year Head Coach Jeff Brohm has proved he can guide the Hilltoppers to success after an 8-5 campaign in 2014. He has instilled confidence in a program that makes Hilltopper fans eager to begin the season.

But WKU’s first opponent is no pushover. The Commodores’ national presence in the Southeastern Conference has set the stage for a highly anticipated season opener. The Hilltoppers are just 2-15 against the SEC, including 0-3 against the Commodores. Since 2012, though, the Hilltoppers are 2-2 against the conference and are proving season by season that they belong in big-time games.

“I think it does matter. I think our guys, our players, our coaches, our fans want to play top competition,” Brohm said. “I think anytime you can face an SEC opponent on their home field, that’s top competition, and that’ll be a challenge for us. These are the type of games that we need to try [to] compete and try to win in that will raise the level of play for us and raise the level of everyone noticing what WKU is all about.”

Vandy is known not for its high-powered offense but for its experienced, unforgiving defense. Head Coach Derek Mason enters his second year at the helm of the Commodores, but he earned a reputation as a defensive coordinator for Stanford from 2011-2013. There he led the Cardinals to back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances with his attacking 3-4 defensive scheme.

This season, Vandy returns all 11 defensive starters from a year ago, including the team’s leading tacklers: redshirt sophomores Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham. Coupled with an experienced secondary and SEC player of the week in 2013 senior defensive end Caleb Azubike, the Commodores have the talent to stop any team’s offense. WKU’s successful offense will have their hands full from the start.

“Well, we have a lot of depth on offense. I think those guys that have replaced the [injured players] are way more than capable,” Doughty said. “I like our team, I really do. I’ll put our team against anyone in the nation, because I really, truly believe that we are really special on offense this year. I just can’t wait for that ball to drop.”

The question mark for the Commodores lies on the offensive side of the ball. After averaging only 17.2 points and 288.3 total offense per game last season, Vandy has brought in new Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig to revitalize the team. Ludwig enters with more than two decades of experience as an offensive coordinator, most recently leading the Wisconsin Badgers to record-book production in 2013-14. 

Vanderbilt returns seven offensive starters, including sophomore quarterback Johnny McCrary who started seven games as a freshman.

The game tonight will be the first matchup between the two teams since 1938 and will be broadcasted nationally on the SEC Network. It will be the first of what could be up to four or five nationally televised games for the Hilltoppers, depending on their play.

The first game of the season can be a nervous time for football players, especially against a well known opponent on a big stage. But if you ask the Hilltoppers, they are ready for the challenge.

“I’ll say that kind of varies for the individual, but across the board we are confident in ourselves,” senior defensive end Gavin Rocker said. “We wouldn’t take them lightly if they weren’t in the SEC. It’s our first game, and we want to make sure that we come out and do a good job. Everybody is excited … because it’s the first game, and we want a good year this year.”