NASHVILLE, Tenn. – He’s only two years into his tenure, but Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm is amid one of the craziest stretches of his football career.
And considering he played in the defunct XFL, that’s a statement.
Going back to the final two games of 2014, the Hilltoppers have won three consecutive games decided on two-point plays. First, they won on a two-point play they called in overtime — before they were required to by rule — to beat then-undefeated Marshall 67-66. Then, they stopped Central Michigan on a two-point play, one of the few big stops in a shootout in a 49-48 bowl win.
The opener against Vanderbilt was the third flavor in this Neapolitan variety pack of finishes decided on two-point conversions. Western Kentucky managed to win a defensive struggle with Vanderbilt as a former running back tackled Vanderbilt’s tight end a yard short of the goal line to preserve a 14-12 win.
The title of the most on-edge team continues for another season, and at least for September, that sets up for a wild month for the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky’s next game is against Louisiana Tech, the only team last season that truly limited Brandon Doughty, who led the nation in passing yards and passing touchdowns. And nine days after that, Western Kentucky plays Indiana, an up-tempo offensive team with a questionable defense.
“I think with our schedule this year, we may have every game like that,” Brohm said. “We’re not much better than other teams, and they’re not much better than us.”
And with Western Kentucky’s two-point conversion history, maybe that’s why the Hilltoppers knew what was coming from Vanderbilt on its last-ditch effort.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason fired both coordinators before this season, and installed himself as defensive play-caller. That seemed to work for most of the game as Vanderbilt held Western Kentucky without a touchdown for the first three quarters. The Hilltoppers had only 85 yards on their first 36 plays. They had 139 yards and two touchdowns on their next 11.
The offense, though, couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Quarterback Johnny McCrary threw two interceptions in the end zone, and a third red zone opportunity came up empty with a missed 28-yard field goal.
The final play was either a sign of preparation and composure from the Western Kentucky sideline or a sign of predictability from the Vanderbilt sideline.
The Commodores brought in former Wisconsin/San Diego State/Cal/Utah/Oregon/Fresno State coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the offense, and although he’d never called a play for Vanderbilt before Thursday, Western Kentucky knew what was coming with the game on the line.
McCrary passed to 6-5, 240-pound tight end Nathan Marcus in the flat short of the goal line. Converted running back Joe Brown, at 5-10, 190 pounds, brought him down by the legs just short of tying the game with 33 seconds left.
“They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator has run for years for two-point conversions and we had the perfect call sitting right on the flats,” said Western Kentucky linebacker Nick Holt, the son of the Hilltoppers’ defensive coordinator of the same name. “They like crossers expecting man coverage and we sat right on it. Joe Brown had a heck of a play cutting down a big, strong physical receiver.
“Offensive coaches have about 2-3-4 plays they like to run in those situations. We study that and we pick our calls depending on what formation they line up in and try and guess what they’re going to try and do.”
Western Kentucky’s opener didn’t bring the expected fireworks, scoring only 14 points after the Hilltoppers averaged 53 points over the final four last season. That’s fine.
The game still came down to a two-point conversion in which a 5-10 sophomore who played running back a year ago had to take down a 6-5 tight end in the open field.
The two-point plays might be predictable. The way Western Kentucky is finishing games these days is not.
“It’s a little old on me," Brohm said, "but fans like to watch it.”