NASHVILLE (AP) — Western Kentucky's offense continually bailed out its defense last season.
Maybe this year the defense returns the favor.
Joe Brown stopped Nathan Marcus a yard shy of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt with 33 seconds left to preserve Western Kentucky's 14-12 victory over Vanderbilt on Thursday night. Brown made an open-field tackle after Marcus caught Johnny McCrary's pass on the conversion attempt.
"We kind of studied what they liked to do on two-point conversions," Western Kentucky linebacker Nick Holt said. "They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator (Andy Ludwig) has run for years for two-point conversions. We had the perfect call. ... We sat right on it, and Joe Brown made a heck of a play cutting down a big, strong, physical receiver."
Vanderbilt had cut the lead to 14-12 when McCrary threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on fourth-and-goal. That was the only touchdown Vanderbilt scored all night, as the Commodores continually stumbled in the red zone against a Western Kentucky defense that had allowed 39.9 points and 509.9 yards per game last season.
"They had to listen to how they didn't play well last year all season long," Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm said. "They fought, battled, worked hard, studied. I could see them getting better. I could tell in practice every day."
Western Kentucky has won six straight games in a streak that began last November. Vanderbilt was seeking to turn things around after going 3-9 last year in Derek Mason's debut season as coach.
Mason, a former Stanford defensive coordinator, responded to that dismal year by firing both his coordinators and putting himself in charge of the defense.
Vanderbilt's defense contained a Western Kentucky offense that ranked sixth nationally in points per game (44.4) and fourth in yards per game (534.6) last season. Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty had thrown for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last year to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision players in both categories.
That high-powered Colonels offense was scoreless for the first 44 minutes of Thursday's game.
"You're talking about a high-profile offense coming in here, and I thought we applied pressure to Doughty all night," Mason said.
Western Kentucky's Tyler Higbee finally awoke a slumbering offense with a 65-yard reception that set up Leon Allen's 4-yard touchdown run. Doughty and Higbee connected again for a 9-yard touchdown on Western Kentucky's next drive.
But those were all the highlights for Western Kentucky's offense.
Instead, it was Western Kentucky's red-zone defense that won the game as Vanderbilt constantly faltered when it got near the end zone.
Vanderbilt had three scoreless trips inside Western Kentucky's 10-yard line. Nick Holt and Nick Newton intercepted McCrary passes in the end zone, and Tommy Openshaw missed a 28-yard field goal after a low snap.
The Commodores had to settle for a field goal on another trip inside the 10 when Marcus dropped a pass in the right corner of the end zone. Openshaw was 2 of 3 on field-goal attempts with a 49-yarder and 26-yarder.
McCrary, who earned the start for Vanderbilt after winning a quarterback competition with Wade Freebeck, went 18 of 34 for 217 yards and also rushed for 66 yards on eight carries. He engineered a 77-yard touchdown drive in a two-minute drill to get the Commodores within reach.
"I thought all the way to the end we were going to win this game," Mason said.
Then Brown stopped Vanderbilt's comeback hopes one yard short.