All Access: Inside Western Kentucky's March Into Death Valley
BATON ROUGE, La. (WDRB) – The perfect story would have ended with Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty finding somebody, probably Taywan Taylor, with a game-winning laser in a Death Valley end zone.
Climb atop the dog pile.
Toss your helmet harder than WKU head coach Jeff Brohm slammed a folding chair in the locker room before he led the Hilltoppers onto the soggy Tiger Stadium turf last Saturday night.
Typically unflappable, Brohm is not a chair-slamming guy. Brohm, 44, is thoughtful, poised, cerebral, measured in his words, a student of Howard Schnellenberger, Bill Walsh, Bobby Petrino and other skilled offensive minds. At Louisiana State, Brohm went off the script. He smashed a metal folding chair to punctuate his locker room speech.
A powerful, confident vibe percolated everywhere in the WKU traveling party last weekend. Brohm and his staff coached confidence as much as Xs and Os. The Hilltoppers came to Baton Rouge to win, not to fill a check mark on LSU’s Homecoming menu.
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt ripped off his dress shirt to ignite the final meeting with his guys. Other assistants and support personnel barked encouragement, occasionally R-rated, for more than an hour in the cramped locker room before the game.
Dr. David Richards, the team physician, stepped over players stretching on the locker room floor and captured the mood as he walked toward the field:
“Remember that night we came to Baton Rouge and beat LSU in the rain? That’s the way this story is going to start.”
But Western Kentucky is an imperfect team that could not play the necessary perfect game.
Behind 17-13 with 22 minutes to play, WKU lost to LSU, 48-20. The Hilltoppers, 6-2, did not complete the Show The World, not Shock The World, moment they had discussed all week.
That does not mean the Hilltoppers did not play hard, tough and smart, the three primary things Brohm asked from his players. They followed Brohm’s plan – as much as they could during a persistent rain.
They also did another thing their head coach demanded. They had fun.
“We’re going to have fun,” Brohm told his players. “There’s no reason to be tight about anything. I don’t think this team feels pressure. There’s going to be 100,000 people cheering against you. You couldn’t ask for anything more. So I want to see a smile on your face and I want to see you have fun.”
This is their story from behind the scenes – inside team meetings and parking lot practice walk through, on the team bus, inside the locker room and along the sidelines – from last weekend at Louisiana State.
Ready for liftoff
Western Kentucky was never supposed to win this football game. You remember Florida 49, WKU 3. That was 2007. Or Alabama 41, WKU 7. That was 2008. Or LSU 42, WKU 9. That was 2011.
Or Tennessee 52, WKU 20. That was only two years ago.
Yes, the Hilltoppers have beaten Kentucky twice and then Vanderbilt to start this season. But there are programs, many of them, that have played FBS-level football for decades and could not come to Death Valley and beat fifth-ranked LSU this season.
The Hilltoppers weren’t supposed to win a test like this test when WKU president Dr. Gary Ransdell was met with chuckles after he announced his ambitious plan to upgrade the school’s football program to Division I-A nearly a decade ago.
They weren’t supposed to win it six years ago when former WKU athletic director Dr. Wood Selig cut a deal for two games with LSU. The first was that 33-point loss in 2011. The contract was fulfilled last Saturday night, a trip that put $950,000 in the Hilltoppers’ athletic budget for the final 60 minutes of football.
And despite winning six of their first seven games, including one at a Southeastern Conference venue (Vanderbilt), WKU was not supposed to win Saturday. LSU was favored by 15 ½ at kickoff, down 1 ½ points from where the point spread had opened six days earlier.
Maybe this time would be different. Western had a veteran team that won eight games last season and attacks with the third-best passing game in America, lead by Doughty, a senior quarterback likely to be selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
“I really hope you guys are starting to feel this, fellas,” WKU special teams coach Ricky Brumfield said. “We’re going to show everybody what Western Kentucky football is all about.”
The team and traveling party gathered at Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport at 9:30 (CDT) Friday morning. Moving in single file, they quietly cleared security. They grabbed box lunches stuffed with chicken sandwiches, chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, green beans and two massive chocolate chip cookies
They boarded their $100,000 charter flight, for the 75-minute trip to southern Louisiana, enjoying first call on a plane that carried the Missouri football team to Nashville later in the day. The WKU towels draped over the top of every seat would have to be removed before the plane moved to Columbia. But forget those long bus trips of the Jack Harbaugh Era. WKU was flying first-class.
Thirty rows with three seats on each side of the aisle. Brohm in the front row with his enthusiastic wife, Jennifer. Assistant coaches and family members tucked behind them. The players, especially the linemen, were stuffed shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the plane. Support staff and fans filled in the next rows. Mike Lacett and I were in row 30 watching everything unfold.
It was an uneventful flight, except for the occasional flash of the seat-belt sign during turbulent weather over Mississippi.
In Louisiana, the Hilltoppers were met by a half-dozen police officers, who made certain the four-bus traveling party, arrived within 15 minutes at the Crowne Plaza, the team hotel.
“I feel like I’m standing out in the cornfields and walking into my “Field of Dreams,” Oscar Brohm said.
Oscar Brohm is Jeff’s father. His oldest son, Greg, is WKU’s director of football operations. Brohm and all three of his sons, including Brian, the youngest, played football at the University of Louisville. Brady Brohm, Jeff’s 10-year-old son, also made the trip, snapping pictures with his grandfather on a stadium tour.
Oscar Brohm still coaches quarterbacks at Trinity High School. He had not missed a Trinity game since 2004 – until last weekend. When Brohm told Trinity coach Bob Beatty that he had opportunity to be with his son at this historic Southeastern Conference venue, Beatty’s response was concise.
Oscar Brohm went.
“This is like a dream come true,” Oscar Brohm said. “I still remember the first few times Jeff was passing the ball to Greg. I think they were in the first and second grade. Maybe a little younger.”
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Nearly every minute of the Hilltoppers’ 35-hour stay in Baton Rouge was scripted, beginning with check-in. The players pulled their travel bags off the bus. Inside the lobby, room keys were spread across a table.
Grab your key, take your stuff to your room and report back to the first floor. Meeting rooms for the defense, offense and coaches had been set up hours earlier, as well as a dining area and ice tubs to soak tired muscles.
A group of about 40 administrators and fans, including Oscar, Jennifer and Brady Brohm, visited Tiger Stadium for a tour that WKU athletic director Todd Stewart arranged.
They saw the visitor’s locker room, which is slightly larger than a utility closet. They saw the LSU locker room, which is considerably larger and fancier than the locker room at your favorite country club.
The tour ended with a stop outside the north end zone where Mike The Tiger, the team mascot, was asleep. LSU even goes large with its mascot. His renovated habitat cost $5 million, which is about $4,999,999.99 more than LSU has spent upgrading the gray and dark visitor’s locker room in the last decade.
“When you talk about the great venues in college football this has to be near the top of the list,” Stewart said.
“I didn’t get any recruiting mail from LSU," said Taywan Taylor, a product of Pleasure Ridge Park High School. "That would have been a dream, a big dream.
“We didn’t have anybody on this team with any big-time offers. I don’t think anybody had any big-time offers like that. This is the chance of a lifetime for most of us.”
The players were not in town to sightsee. They did not travel to Tiger Stadium for a tour – or even a single practice. All the final preparation was staged at the Crowne Plaza. After stretching and visits to the ice tubs, about 40 members of the offense gathered in a hotel ballroom at 4 p.m. Friday. Coordinator Tyson Helton finalized the game plan.
Brohm and Helton script WKU’s first eight plays. On a video screen they showed every offensive play they intended to use against the Tigers, from side and rear camera angles, on a jumbo projection screen.
With Doughty, the quarterback, sitting in the front row scribbling notes, Helton flashed his red laser pointer to emphasize details: Receivers had to read the correct shoulder of a defensive back before making a cut; Doughty had to analyze the position of linebackers and safeties to anticipate a blitz; linemen had to stay with their blocks through the whistle to keep Doughty upright.
“We are going to throw the ball vertically,” Helton said.
“I don’t care who they are, where they are ranked or who their mommas and daddies are. I don’t want any pitter patter of the feet. Just run the ball up in there. You’re going to get open. We’re going to make yardage. We’re going to make plays.”
There was no rousing response to any of that, not 25 hours before kickoff. Just an hour of quiet contemplation before the offensive guys joined the defense in adjoining ballroom. It was time to eat.
College football players eat. And eat. And eat. A lot. The players dined in quiet groups of eight, enjoying steaks, chicken, baked potatoes, vegetable, fruits, salad, cookies and ice cream sundaes. Fancy ice cream sundaes, adorned with cherries, strawberries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, nuts, whipped cream and more.
Bottles of blue Powerade were stacked on every table. Hydration trumps nutrition at this level of competition. Every player was encouraged to drink at least two bottles – and even more water.
After the players ate, Sean Pugh, the team’s character coach, gave a devotional that could be reduced to this simple message:
“Enjoy this moment. Enjoy this opportunity. Don’t let anxiety run you life. Tomorrow will worry about itself. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and you’re prepared for it.”
Brohm took it from there, pounding home the theme that Western’s players are always expected to play harder, play tougher and play smarter.
“Remember this,” Brohm said. “There was a game (at Marshall) last year when no one gave you a chance to win either.” (WKU beat the unbeaten Thundering Herd, 67-66.)
Brohm kept the game-plan talk simple. Western planned to test the LSU secondary with several deep passes. On defense, WKU was committed to loading the box – keeping eight defenders close to the line of scrimmage – to contain Leonard Fournette, LSU’s all-American halfback. Their orders were simple: Tackle Fournette low. His beastly upper body made it too risky to hit him around the shoulders.
On special teams, WKU hoped to take advantage of LSU’s pattern of using only three guys to rush the punter. He knew which three LSU defenders would attack, often in a half-hearted rush. WKU wanted its punter to take several extra steps before kicking the football and pin LSU deep in its territory.
The next two hours were filled with more position group meetings and a final outline of special team assignments. Players were dismissed for the night at 7:30, but not until they were handed one final snack – more fruit and a jumbo turkey sandwich.
Guys moved slowly toward the elevators, teasing Brady Brohm, who jumped in and out of every meeting. Brandon Doughty sat outside the front door of the hotel, taking to family members. Eventually most of the team drifted upstairs. Players were required to be in their rooms by 10 p.m.
“A lot of the assistant coaches will get together in one room,” said Mike Cassity, WKU’s secondary coach.
To refine the game plan one final time?
“No,” Cassity said, with a laugh. “We usually watch whatever college football game is on TV and try to relax. Try to.”
Lights out. Go to sleep.
With a 6 p.m. kickoff, there was no rush to begin the final countdown to kickoff. Brohm did not want his guys to play the game in the lobby or pacing the floors.
Rest. Get more rest. Rest.
Nothing was demanded of the players until 10 a.m. Even that was too early for several WKU players. Brady Brohm bounced from the meeting rooms back to the second floor, making certain every player, was awake and ready to hydrate.
“Gotta get back up there,” Brady Brohm told one of the assistant coaches. “Can’t get a couple receivers out of bed. I’ll take care of it. Let’s go, guys.”
Another meal, another feast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, fruit, bread and more. Players stood in line at two omelet stations in the front of the room. As the players dined, managers and support staff secured the parking lot, stringing police tape around a small area, making certain that most vehicles, other than a white van, were moved.
The asphalt was cracked, uneven and stained with oil, but the show had to go on. By 10:45 players separated into three groups – offense, defense and special teams.
“Just one final look at everything so guys can visualize the formations that they’re going to see,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. “We want their memories to be fresh. No surprises on the field.”
The session was spirited but brief, a little more than 30 minutes before the players were dismissed to their rooms for their final 2 ½ hours of rest.
Anxiety finally kicked in. Lunch was scheduled for 2 p.m. but most players could no longer wait. They reported downstairs by 1:30 and had left the dining room before the 2 p.m. crowd arrived. The fare was lighter, spaghetti with pasta sauce, bread, chicken breast and more fruit. Players washed it down with Powerade, lemonade and water.
Busses were scheduled to leave for Tiger Stadium at 3:30, but you know what that means in football time: Everybody was back in the lobby no later than 3:10, eager for their favorite motivational moment of every weekend:
The Highlight Clips.
The players gathered in a dark ballroom. Five minutes of fast-paced highlights set to throbbing music. The clips were taken from the game Western won the previous weekend at North Texas. Only the very best hits, blocks, catches and throws qualified, most of them slowed down and juiced up with music for maximum impact. Holt got so energized by what he watched that he ripped off his white dress shirt in front of his defensive unit.
“Let’s go,” Brohm said. “Let’s go do what you have been coached to do.”
Louisiana State 48, Western Kentucky 20
Surrounded by another police escort, the four WKU busses traveled the final 2.9 miles from the Crowne Plaza to Tiger Stadium in less than 15 minutes. The closer the bus inched to the stadium, the larger the crowds of fans dressed in LSU purple and gold who actually recognized that the busses were not carrying the home team.
“TIGER BAIT, TIGER BAIT, TIGER BAIT.”
In case the WKU players were uncertain of the venue, LSU made certain that opposing team understood the complexity of the task with this sign posted above the doorway to the visiting locker room:
“WELCOME TO DEATH VALLEY”
“It’s not as bad as it used to be,” said Cassity, who played in Tiger Stadium with Kentucky.
“That sign has always been there. But on the other side, when you ran out of the locker room, they used to park the tiger in his cage right there a few steps from the door. When you ran on the field, he’d be looking into your eyes, growling.”
Rain started to spit across the playing field as the first handful of WKU players ventured out of the locker room. For most of the final two hours before the game the rain increased. About an hour before the game it rained so relentlessly that the stands were nearly completely empty and an official blew a whistle, asking the players to leave the field.
For the next two hours, the WKU guys would venture in and out in assigned groups. They dressed slowly, offense in the room closest to the field, defense in the back, with the chalkboard and showers. Most players sucked on another Powerade, sealing off the world by closing their eyes and tugging on massive headphones. Few guys spoke.
Without enough room on the floor for every player to stretch, guys rotated into spots whenever space opened. The room was so cramped and the benches so unsteady that when halfback Ace Wales finally sat down, he accidentally knocked the helmet of teammate D’Andre Ferby from its perch. It fell and hit another teammate in the face as he stretched on the floor in front of his dressing area. Guys just kept stretching. It’s called focus.
Brohm gave a 10-minute warning that his final speech was coming. Student managers distributed pickle juice and power bars. Pickle juice? Pickle juice helps the body retain sodium, a key in fighting fourth quarter fatigue. Everybody squeezed into the back of the room.
Dressed in a gray rain suit and wearing a baseball cap, Brohm took a knee and asked Pugh to lead the team in prayer. His final pre-game speech was 1 minute and 36 seconds.
“Here we go. It’s here. Exactly what we wanted. Exactly what we wanted – a great opponent. At their home turf. You’re their Homecoming team.
“We’ve worked our tail off all year. We improve every week. We battle. We fight. There’s a reason we win. There’s a reason we win: We play harder, we play tougher and we play smarter.
“So remember that. That’s how you win the game. You find a way to play harder, tougher and smarter, the entire game. Don’t be looking at the scoreboard. I don’t really care what the score is.
“I want a team that competes their tails off every single play and plays harder, tougher and smarter every single play. We’ve got to do the small things. We’ve got to get lined up. We’ve got to keep it in front of us.
“You can’t be falling down. Receivers we’ve got to catch the ball, not just with your hands but your bodies as well. Running backs, with your bodies as well. Quarterbacks catch it first. Centers, make sure the snaps are perfect. We do the small things on every play.
“And you have fun doing it. When I talk about having fun, I’m talking about having intense fun because I’ve asked you to do three things in all these games – harder, tougher, smarter. And you’ve done them.
“This game I’m asking you one more thing. One more thing, all right?
“I want to make sure that when you’re having fun the smile on your face, remember what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about beating them. I’m talking about having a smile on your face, a look in your eye and you’re going to kick somebody’s tail and …”
At that point Brohm reached for a metal folding chair and slammed it to the floor. Screams erupted. Players surged toward their head coach. Equipment managers wanted to hit somebody. Everybody searched for the door. It was time to play football.
Western lost the toss, but received the opening kickoff when the home team deferred.
Remember the game plan: Throw the vertical pass on offense; stuff the box on defense; dominate on special teams.
Western’s run defense delivered. The special teams were solid.
But Western could not throw the deep pass. Maybe it was the persistent rain. Maybe it was the LSU defense. Maybe it simply wasn’t Western’s night.
The Hilltoppers failed to score on their first four drives, three ending on punts. Their first 21 snaps generated only 67 yards. Their per play average on those drives was 3.19, less than half of WKU’s season average of 7.13.
Still, the game was close – LSU 17, WKU 13 – more than eight minutes into the third quarter. Then LSU kicked a field goal. Western Kentucky fumbled the kickoff. LSU scored a touchdown. Doughty threw an interception when his receiver slipped on the wet turf. Uh-oh.
No more drama in the Bayou. Nearly 75,000 of Tiger Stadium’s 102,000 seats were empty for the final four minutes of the fourth quarter as LSU stretched its lead to 48-20. Miles met Brohm at midfield and complimented WKU’s effort
“The opponent proved to be a quality opponent,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Congratulations to Coach Brohm and the Western Kentucky team. I think they are very quality. They made us earn a victory tonight.”
Some perspective. LSU beat Auburn by 24 and South Carolina 21. The final LSU touchdown, a 47-yard touchdown run in the final two minutes, inflated the final margin to four touchdowns. WKU competed with LSU as solidly as any team other than Florida has.
LSU made its vertical passing game sizzle. Quarterback Brandon Harris hit three passes for 55 yards or more, two for touchdowns. Doughty completed 37 of 61 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns. But only five of the completions were good for more than 15 yards. Not enough success in the vertical passing game to deliver an upset.
“I hate to make this excuse, but if the rain wasn’t there, I think we would have been better on offense for sure,” Doughty said.
Brohm knows what is ahead: The pursuit of a 10-victory season, a Conference USA title and a nice bowl trip. Even after the defeat ESPN’s college football power rankings have the Hilltoppers at No. 43 nationally projected to finish the season with a 10-2 record.
Brohm’s message after the game was textbook Brohm -- calm, thoughtful and measured:
“First off, I’m proud of that effort, now,” Brohm said. “And you should be proud of that effort, too.
“There’s some teams across the country, and some in our conference, that want to play a bunch of pancakes in the non-conference. Not us. Two SEC teams (LSU, Vandy), one Big Ten team (Indiana). That’s a good effort right there.
“They won the ball game. They’re a good football team. You guys fought, came out in the second half and we made it close again and they were able to pull away.
“But guys did play hard. Guys did get better. When you play a team that good, you’re going to get better. It’s not a wasted week. That’s a good week.
“So make sure we give them credit for the victory. They’re a good football team. We keep our head up. We have a good attitude and once again, just like last year, now our playoffs start.
“We can still achieve all of our goals. You want to be a conference champion? OK. Now we’re in the playoffs. And it starts next week. On the road again (at Old Dominion) against our conference four games in a row.
“So if you want to be a champion, which you CAN, you put your mind to it, you believe in yourselves and play tough, intense football all the time, you can do it. So make sure we refocus and lock in again and we learn from our mistakes. Because when you play good teams you can learn.
“We can get a lot better and then we get ready to go battle and go win next week because this is when our playoffs start. If you want to go somewhere special, you get in the playoffs and you keep winning and you advance. And it starts next week.”
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