COLUMN: Hilltoppers grind out win at Vanderbilt

Jonah Phillips

Jonah Phillips

A win is a win. 

Getting results is—bottom line—the most important aspect of any athletic team.

And that’s what the Hilltoppers did when they traveled to Nashville for their season opener last Thursday, beating Vanderbilt 14-12 in front of a crowd of 30,000.  

But it wasn’t pretty. 

The gritty win came in a way unfamiliar to Hilltopper fans in recent memory. 

Sure, there was a big two-point conversion stop to seal the Hilltoppers’ win in the fourth quarter (strikingly similar to the culmination of the Popeye’s Bahama’s Bowl), but a stout defensive win hasn’t been the norm on the Hill in the past couple of years. 

An uninspired performance from one of the nation’s top ranked offenses last season left WKU trailing 3-0 at halftime. 

More concerning was the Hilltoppers’ lack of production.  

WKU had an abysmal 46 yards of total offense in the first half compared to Vandy’s 206, and the Toppers managed just two first downs to the Commodores’ 11, going 1-7 in third down conversions. 

The defense, though, managed to keep the Hilltoppers in the game thanks to an interception in the end zone from senior linebacker Nick Holt early in the second quarter. 

On top of the red zone stop from Holt, Vandy would miss a 27-yard field goal. 

That’s a possible 10 points squandered by an SEC offense in the red zone to a team whose defense ranked 120th in the nation last campaign.  

At media day prior to the season’s start, Head Coach Jeff Brohm said if senior quarterback Brandon Doughty had to produce numbers similar to last season’s, then his team wouldn’t be winning the way he wants. 

Which has me asking: Is the result against Vanderbilt “winning the way he wants?”

In the second half, the defense came up big again with another interception in the end zone—this time from senior linebacker Nick Newton. 

And the Hilltoppers began to find an offensive rhythm. 

Leon Allen rushed for a touchdown in the third, and Doughty connected with Higbee on a 65-yard pass in the fourth that breathed life into the lungs of an offense that had struggled all game. 

He finished with 209-yards passing and a touchdown to senior tight end Tyler Higbee. 

But as the clock was winding down, Vandy gave one last surge on their last possession of the game, orchestrating a 77-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown. The Commodores fell short, though, on a two-point conversion thanks to an open field tackle from defensive convert, sophomore Joe Brown. 

As for my question about whether this was the type of win Brohm was looking for? I think it both was and wasn’t. 

Yes, it was the way Brohm wanted to win because the victory embodied defensive solidity and an ability to grind past opponents when the normal game plan doesn’t work. His team made big plays in the red zone—offensively, but especially defensively—and most importantly, finished with two more points than its opponent’s. 

But no, it wasn’t the way Brohm wanted to win because without Vanderbilt’s sophomore quarterback Johnny McCrary throwing two crucial interceptions in the red zone, the Hilltoppers wouldn’t have won this game. 

And if Vandy’s kicker sunk what normally would be a chip shot from 27 yards out in the first half, the Hilltoppers wouldn’t have won this game. 

We don’t have to sit here and play a game of ifs as spectators because the Hilltoppers left with the W, but these are real concerns Brohm and his staff will look to address this week before their next game.  

Surely Brohm will look for more stability from his team against Louisiana Tech on Thursday. 

WKU can rely on its defense making big plays this season, but it can’t rely on missed field goals and opponents going 2-5 in the red zone for wins.