Pratt: WKU completes mission by ruining Marshall’s perfect season

Hilltoppers head coach Jeff Brohm greets fans after Friday’s game in Huntington, West Virginia. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Elliott Pratt

HUNTINGTON, W. Va. – When you enter Huntington, West Virginia, you feel there’s something special about the place. Its significance doesn’t glow – it’s actually buried.

The stadium lies in the heart of an industrial district with the hills of the wild and wonderful state in view for miles near the genesis of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s not visually pleasing. Warehouses and utility cranes as far as the eye can see, but you appreciate its heart and its purpose.

In this town lies a football team that’s driving it’s own name towards national recognition. You could hear the declaration chants of “We are Marshall” echoing down the Ohio River as the Thundering Herd was one win away from their first undefeated season in 15 years.

They were close. Oh so close.

But they ran into a Western Kentucky team with nothing to lose. As a result, Marshall lost nearly everything that built up to that cold November afternoon in Huntington.

WKU hadn’t faced a more hostile environment on the road this season because more was riding on this game for the team that had yet to lose than the squad that was 6-5.

Then that WKU team rolled in and stole Marshall’s would-be invitation to a New Year’s Day game and an undefeated season by winning 67-66 in an overtime thriller.

Go ahead and book your tickets fans, WKU will be bowling this holiday season.

The regular season literally ended the same way it did last season. Brandon Doughty rolled to his right with the intention of getting the ball to fellow senior Willie McNeal. It was the exact same play WKU ran against Arkansas State in the season finale last year – Doughty rolls out to his right and finds McNeal wide open for a touchdown after he sold a slant to the defense like a Black Friday deal.

The difference in the two plays is that this year the Hilltoppers get to actually see that Christmas gift.

“It’s tremendous,” WKU Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “To fight back from where we were at, to experience some of the losses we experienced and to find a way to just keep getting better, keep working at it and for them to reel off four in a row says a lot.

“We called this our championship game and it was. And hey, now you get to advance again because we won the championship in our mind against a great team. We get to advance to another game and I know they’re extremely, extremely happy.”

No longer does athletics director Todd Stewart have to spend countless hours on the phone dishing out a sales pitch to bowl representatives. A 7-5 record in Conference USA with one of those wins on the road at No. 19 Marshall is just enough to guarantee another game for the Hilltoppers.

But for a moment it looked like Marshall was going to survive once again at Edwards Stadium, just as it had the past 13 games dating back to 2012. Part of what’s special about a town like Huntington is the dominance of its own turf. Marshall had beaten teams by a 28-point average leading up to the home finale against WKU.

No way those Hilltoppers come in and keep the Herd from finishing the mission.

Except those Hilltoppers were on a mission of their own.

Ask Willie McNeal about it. You know, the guy who ripped Marshall’s heart out and helped WKU win its first ever game over a ranked FBS opponent.

“It’s going to be something to remember,” McNeal said. “Doughty was telling us that this will be a game that we’re going to talk about for the rest of our lives. We’re going to come back for homecoming 10 years later and we’ll say, ‘Remember when we played Marshall and they were undefeated and we went up and beat them?’ Last year with those guys they can talk about how they went 8-4. We’re going to brag about how we beat a ranked team.”

This is the same group of redshirt seniors who watched WKU crawl through a 2-10 season under former coach Willie Taggart during the program’s second full season at the FBS level. Since then they’ve been a part of four-straight bowl eligible seasons. They’ve only been once in 2012, now they’re heading back.

“It’s amazing,” Doughty said. “We’ve been through so much. I relayed that to those guys and said ‘Hey, we’ve been through so much. Why not do this for one more game?’ One game at a time. One play at a time. I think that’s what we did today. We took it as one game at a time.”

And how about that rookie head coach? No way Jeff Brohm can do the impossible and maintain consistency following a Bobby Petrino departure.

Where ever Petrino goes, the program immediately crumbles when he leaves. Neither Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons or Arkansas could immediately recover from what Petrino left behind.

And now, WKU is not only bowl eligible for the fourth-straight season, the Hilltoppers are on their way to one more game thanks to Brohm’s ability to carry over what Petrino started in just his first year as a head coach.

“They bought in,” Brohm said. “They just work hard every day. They enjoy the game of football. To compete at a high level in the conference in the first year against some really good teams and to finish like we did – I’m ecstatic.”