Raise your hand if your prediction for the Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt game had the Toppers scoring 14 total points to win a nail-biter of a contest. Coach Holt, you don't count, put your hand back down. In reality, everyone, including the odds makers who put the over/under on the game at 64.5 points, anticipated more of an offensive shootout in Nashville on Thursday night.
Instead, with the WKU offense struggling to find its rhythm in the first half, it was the defense that fueled the 14-12 season-opening win at Vanderbilt. As was often the case in 2014, the offense was expected to carry the majority of the load for the Hilltoppers against the Commodores, but instead managed just 46 yards of total offense through two quarters. With each possession, the pressure on the Hilltoppers defense increased and they continually came through.
WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt's squad kept Vanderbilt scoreless in the first quarter. He watched as his son, senior linebacker Nick Holt, ended the Commodores best offensive series of the game with an interception in the end zone early in the second quarter. While the hosts managed 206 yards of offense in the first half, the Hilltoppers defense limited them to a field goal during the first half.
“We knew our offense was going to score points,” said Holt, who finished with seven tackles. “We just needed to go out there, execute, fly around, and have fun, and we had fun tonight and I think that is part of the reason we played so well. We were having a lot of fun playing together. ”
The second half saw an even tougher WKU defense, holding the Commodores offense to just 187 yards during the final frame. Senior linebacker Nick Newton became the second Hilltopper linebacker to end a Vanderbilt drive with a interception in the end zone, his coming midway through the third quarter with his team still trailing 3-0.
“That's what helped us win the game,” said WKU head coach Jeff Brohm of his team's red zone defense. “If we don't stop them there, that's a different ball game. To not only stop them and tackle before they go in, but force them to throw the ball and then make interceptions. We knew that if we could stop the run, and force them to pass we'd be in better situations. But definitely when you make stops down there, that was huge and for sure helped us win the game.”
For WKU, winning due the the strong play of its defense is certainly a turn of fortune from a season ago, when the Hilltoppers finished among the worst in most defensive categories. Much of the off season discussion has centered around the prior defensive woes.
“The defense had a lot to prove this year,” said Newton, who was also credited with a forced fumble. “You know, 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." ”
While he may have been a bit happier had his offense been more productive throughout the entre game, Brohm was clearly pleased in the result and the positive impact that his team's defense had in beginning the new season off with a victory.
“I gave the game ball to coach Holt's staff and all the defensive players,” said Brohm. “They had to listen to how they didn't play well last year, and they fought, battled and worked hard. They studied, and I could see them getting better in practice every day. And I think for us to be a great football team, we're going to have to be great at offense, defense and special teams. The defense covered for us today on offense and I couldn't be happier for a team victory like that.”
Up next: WKU will host Conference USA West Division favorite Louisiana Tech for it's home-opener on Thursday, Sept., 10.