Topper defense comes up big when needed in 36-27 win at Navy

Redshirt defensive lineman Tanner Reeves (59) tackles the Illini’s running back Donovonn Young (5) during the second half of WKU’s 34-42 loss against the University of Illinois Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Mike Clark/HERALD

Kyle Williams

For a brief moment on Saturday, it looked as if WKU’s hopes of breaking a two-game skid were whittling away.

With just a two-point advantage and 1:46 remaining, the Hilltoppers were forced to punt the ball away to Navy.

Although the Midshipmen moved the chains in two plays, they gained zero yards on the following three, setting up a dramatic interception — a 43-yard touchdown return by redshirt junior defensive back Wonderful Terry on fourth down.

WKU’s offense racked up 551 total yards, led by redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, who totaled 387 passing yards and became the first Hilltopper quarterback to reach the 300-yard mark in back-to-back games. However, the defense won the game for the Hilltoppers.

Terry, who became the first WKU player since 2000 to record multiple defensive touchdowns in the same season, was one of several defensive players to contribute to the 36-27 win in Annapolis, Maryland last weekend.

The defense tallied a season-high four sacks from four different players — redshirt sophomore Devante Terrell, junior linebacker Dejon Brown, redshirt junior Bryan Shorter and redshirt sophomore Branden Leston — and seven tackles for loss.

Junior defensive lineman Ge’Monee Brown forced a fumble in the second quarter that was recovered by junior linebacker Nick Holt, adding to the interception by Terry to total two turnovers.

In addition, the defense held Navy to 2-of-11 on third down. The Midshipmen entered the game No. 15 in the country for third-down percentage.

The Hilltopper defense lost 374 games of experience from last year’s unit and 38.2 percent of its tackles from a season ago. Head Coach Jeff Brohm said this makes balance and depth on the defensive side of the ball even more important.

“Do we have the elite players we had last year, especially on the defensive side at some positions? Probably not right now,” Brohm said. “But we think we have a group of 22-plus on both sides of the ball that play hard, that are all very similar in their ability and their work ethic, and we think that we can rotate those guys throughout the game. Not only to keep them fresh, but keep the guys motivated when there’s competition there.

“The more you can get your guys and your players feeling a part of the team, I think it helps the team chemistry and helps everybody prepare and work hard and challenge each other.”          

Thirteen players recorded at least two solo tackles against Navy, led by Dejon Brown with seven. Brown had 10 total tackles and recorded his first career sack.

Redshirt senior defensive back Ricardo Singh totaled nine tackles and Holt, who leads the Conference USA in total tackles per game, tallied seven.

The Hilltoppers gave up 412 rushing yards, but just 55 through the air.

Navy junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds completed just three of 14 pass attempts, after going 12-of-22 for 231 yards a week ago against Rutgers.

Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tanner Reeves said the Hilltoppers did give up some rushing yards, but got stops when they needed to.

“We only gave up two third downs,” Reeves said. “I think with those stats, that shows that we worked as a team.”

WKU currently ranks No. 29 in the country in red zone defense, giving up touchdowns on only 14 of its opponents 23 red zone attempts, just two of which were passing touchdowns. The defense also ranks No. 41 in the country and No. 4 in C-USA for team sacks per game at an average of 2.5.

The defense will welcome a UAB offense, averaging 475.3 total yards per game, this Saturday in the Hilltoppers’ first home C-USA bout at 6 p.m.