When the 2014 season opened against Bowling Green State at Feix Field, what transpired was the last thing anyone thought would transpire. Brandon Doughty had his coming out party and the Hilltoppers cruised to a 59-31 win over the Owls. Fast forward to the opener for the 2015 season, and the story is both the exact same and yet the polar opposite.
Western Kentucky opened its second year in Conference USA with an ugly, and I do mean u-g-l-y, win over Vanderbilt in a third-straight game that came down to a two-point conversion, 14-12. The Hilltoppers were shutout in the first quarter for the first time since 2013 against Texas State and shutout in the first half for the first time since 2012 at Alabama, and gained just 46 yards - 58 passing and -16 rushing - at halftime.
And the Hilltoppers still won.
WKU's defense was the star of the show, just as I predicted in my preview for this contest. The Tops forced Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary (who was named the starter five minutes before kickoff) to toss two interceptions, both of which were picked in the endzone to kill some Commodore momentum. The first interception came with 11:41 to play in the first half when Nick Holt picked a McCrary out of the air, keeping the game scoreless at the time, and the second of which came with 4:02 left to play in the third quarter when Nick Newton stopped a would-be touchdown drive by Vandy, keeping it a 3-0 lead.
I'm reluctant to say Western's offense was bad. It wasn't good because it couldn't get into any sort of momentum or rhythm (which, in return, resulted in horrible numbers), but things changed when Doughty, from his own 31-yard line, found Tyler Higbee (which he did a lot of) who took the ball nearly to the house, getting tripped up at the 4 of Vanderbilt. On the next play, Leon Allen punched it in to give WKU a 7-3 lead (a lead they would never relinquish).
Vandy came within one point on the very next possession, then the Tops answered right back when Doughty and Higbee connected again, this time for a 9-yard score, giving WKU a 14-6 advantage.
The bend-not-break defense of WKU finally gave in on the final possession of the game, when Vandy marched 77 yards in 12 plays for its only touchdown of the game on a McCrary pass to Trent Sherfield about four-yards deep into the endzone to make it a two-point game. The two-point conversion would go the way of the Toppers for the third game in a row, clinching the victory for the Tops.
Outside of that final drive for Vandy (and, truthfully, that drive could have happened to any defense in the conference, or even country) the Tops defense was stellar. Yes, I'll say it. STELLAR. UAB transfer T.J. McCollum lead the way with eight total tackles (five solo take downs) while Holt and Gavin Rocker both finished with seven. Branden Leston had six tackles before leaving the game due to a targeting penalty which, by rule, was technically correct, but was a tough-luck call. Luckily, his absence was taken for inspiration instead of deflating the Tops. WKU also nearly lost Wonderful Terry a couple plays into the game, but he played a majority of the second half, and Prince Charles Iworah only made two or three plays, but they were all key in the victory.
Remember that whole thing about not getting into a rhythm? Yeah, that resulted in the following numbers for Doughty: 19 completions on 30 attempts, 209 yards and a touchdown. Despite negative rushing yardage at halftime (Doughty himself logged -32 yards rushing thanks to a couple fumble recoveries and a handful of sacks), both Allen and D'andre Ferby really impressed. Allen went for 56 yards on 15 touches and a score, and although Ferby only had two touches, he made them count, and I hope we see more of him this year.
Higbee logged 102 yards through the air on four receptions, and the next closes receiver was Taywan Taylor, catching three passes for 40 yards.
WKU gets the SEC win, which is all that matters, but it wasn't the game anyone thought it would be. Hopefully this game is a smack in the face of Tops fans to say "yes, this team is good, but lets take things one game at a time before we crown anything upon ourselves."
That next game? Another Thursday night bout against Louisiana Tech. We all remember how last year played out.