Don’t Call It a Comeback | Hilltoppers overcome errors, take season opener

WKU’s running back Leon Allen, #33, celebrates with tight end Tyler Higbee, #82, after Higbee scored a touchdown during the Hilltoppers’ 14-12 win over Vanderbilt Thursday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. Allen and Higbee each score a touchdown in the game.

Billy Rutledge

Thursday’s game at Vanderbilt Stadium was a chance for the WKU football team to flaunt its powerful offense. Instead, the Hilltoppers’ defense proved to be the deciding factor in the team’s first victory of the season.

The 2015 Hilltoppers are a different breed from the team they were a season ago. Last season, Hilltopper fans saw WKU average over 44 points per game on offense and struggle to keep the defense on the field.

Thursday night seemed to be the opposite.

After a first half full of drops and miscues, the Hilltoppers rallied after halftime to beat SEC conference foe Vanderbilt 14-12.

“It was a huge win for our program and a huge win for our team,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “I’m extremely proud of our guys. Our team fought and battled and we talked all year that we need to try and find a way to win the second half …for our guys to fight and find a way to win, especially in that fashion—it was big for us.”

It took the entire 60 minutes for the Red and White.

After taking a 14-6 lead with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter, Vandy had enough juice for one final push. A late touchdown by the Commodores with 33 seconds left set the stage for a possible game-tying two-point conversion.

A pass to Vandy tight end Nathan Marcus was caught, but WKU sophomore cornerback Joe Brown made the game-saving tackle.

The play was one of many by the Hilltopper defense that kept them in the game. The defensive unit forced three turnovers, had five tackles for loss and held Vandy to zero points on three of their five redzone trips.

Senior linebackers Nick Holt and Nick Newton recorded their first career interceptions in the process. Both were in the end-zone, stalling long Vandy drives.

“It was great. The defense had a lot to prove this year,” Newton said. “Coming back last year, a lot of people had a lot to say—you know, that it was an all-offensive team. But we went out and eliminated the big plays; we stopped the run, and we got some turnovers.”

The first half was one to forget for the Hilltoppers. WKU punted six times, had five drops—including one for a touchdown by senior receiver Jared Dangerfield—and was shut out in the first half for the first time since 2013.

The Commodores out-rushed the Hilltoppers 129 to -12 in that time, but could only put three points on the scoreboard.

Going into halftime down 3-0, WKU’s senior quarterback Brandon Doughty was 6-14 for 58 passing yards and -20 rushing yards. He was able to turn it around in the second half as the leader finished 19-30 for 209 yards and a passing touchdown.

Doughty’s favorite target of the night, senior tight end Tyler Higbee, hauled in four catches for 102 yards and a TD. The game was the first career 100-yard receiving game for Higbee. A large part of that was picked up on a 65-yard reception in the third quarter that set up the Hilltoppers’ first score of the night.

Senior running back Leon Allen came on after that to punch in the four-yard touchdown run to put WKU up 7-3 with less than a minute left in the third quarter. 

In the fourth, clock management was the name of the game. The WKU offense looked revitalized as Doughty conducted a nine-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard touchdown strike from Doughty to Higbee. After taking the 14-6 lead, the defense was able to do enough to allow the Hilltoppers to achieve their fourth consecutive season opening win.

“We weren’t playing up to par and we have excelled before; we know we are better than that,” Higbee said. “It was frustrating at times, and you know sometimes you just have to step up and make plays, and that is what we were lacking in the beginning of the game.

WKU is now 3-15 against SEC opponents, but 3-2 since 2012. The team’s next game will be Thursday, Sept. 10, at Smith Stadium against Conference USA foe Louisiana Tech.