MIAMI, Fla. (WDRB) -- MIAMI, Fla. (WDRB) -- The Western Kentucky University football team picked up its first Top 25 national ranking in the Associated Press poll earlier this month. It appears the Hilltoppers will be able to hold onto it for a while.

Behind a big second-half performance from sixth-year senior quarterback Brandon Doughty and a 105 yards rushing from Louisville native Ace Wales the Hilltoppers erased an early 14-point deficit to beat South Florida (and former WKU player and coach Willie Taggart) 45-35 in the Miami Beach Bowl.

Before a crowd of 21,712 at Marlins Park, the two teams piled up better than 1,000 yards of offense.

Doughty threw for 461 and three touchdowns, boosting his total the past two seasons to 97, a new Football Bowl Subdivision record.

The win puts a cap on a 12-2 season for WKU, which won its first league championship in Conference USA in just its sixth full season as an FBS member.

The Hilltoppers did it with a quick-strike offense. After bogging down with some self-inflicted first-half penalties and an uncharacteristic Doughty interception in the first half, there were few misfires in the second.

After throwing an interception on the first play of the second quarter, Doughty completed his next 12 passes in a preview of what was to come.

Trailing 14-10 at half, WKU stopped the Bulls on their first second-half series, then went to work. They scored 28 third-quarter points, and their five second-half scoring drives averaged 1:07 in duration.



3:09: Will that be enough? The WKU defense got a fourth-down stop to give the Hilltoppers the ball and a chance to kill some clock. USF has two timeouts left. 

5:09: Another quick strike. This time, the WKU drive of 64 yards took only two plays -- and both involved Louisville native Ace Wales. The redshirt junior pitched it back to Brandon Doughty for a flea-flicker to Antwane Grant for 22 yards, then carried it in himself from 42 yards out to put WKU back up by 10. Wales now has 105 yards on 14 carries, and two touchdowns. There was another review, but there was no doubt about this TD. WKU 45, USF 35.

5:58: A huge defensive series for WKU after the tipped-ball interception. They got a couple of incompletions, a fortunate holding call to back USF out of field-goal range, and then saw Emilio Nadelman kick it wide left (after calling timeout before he missed a prior attempt). WKU takes over, 5:58 to play, at the USF 36. 

8:58: These kinds of plays can be game-changers. Brandon Doughty's pass hit Ace Wales' hands, then his head, then wound up in the hands of USF defensive lineman Eric Lee, who returned it 13 yards. It's the second turnover of the game for WKU, and sets up USF in good position to tie or take the lead.

11:00: Here come the Bulls. After getting a big stop, USF took very little time -- 2:09, exactly -- to go 75 yards in six plays and pull within a field goal. On QB Quinton Flowers' eight-yard TD run, he again did a great job of stepping into the middle of the line, then backing out and using his speed to get around the edge. These teams have combined for 983 yards of offense. And there are still 11 minutes to play. WKU 38, USF 35.

14:53: Points coming from all over the place now. Expect Willie Taggart and USF to keep this interesting. South Florida goes 82 yards in two plays, and only 12 seconds. Quinton Flowers found Rodney Adams for 53 yards on the TD. WKU 38, USF 28.


0:05: After an outstanding return by Necarius Fant set WKU up at the USF 26, Brandon Doughty found Jared Dangerfield over the middle, and after being flipped over by a couple of defenders, Dangerfield held on to put WKU up by 17. Respect. Listen to this. Brandon Doughty has thrown 97 TD passes the past two seasons. That's a new FBS record. WKU 38, USF 21.

2:59: Moments after his pass for a sure TD wasn't caught, Nacarius Fant took the ball on a reverse, cut sharply, called out a block and sped into the end zone from 9 yards out to put the Hilltoppers back ahead by 10. WKU drove 69 yards on seven plays over 2:59. Again, credit Jeff Brohm for some really good play-calling in the second half. It was good in the first half too, there were just some open receivers who didn't get the ball. But this half has been a clinic. WKU 31, USF 21.

4:45: It was almost the perfect answer to a running back pass for a TD. WKU's Nacarius Fant reached back and threw a strike downfield to Antwane Grant, but the ball sailed through his hands. Otherwise, it would've been a touchdown.

4:55: Let me guess. That kid was a quarterback in high school, right? Quinton Flowers pitched back to D'Ernest Jackson, who reached back and fired a strike, 34 yards, to Tyre McCants in the end zone, and USF is back within a field goal. The shootout we thought we'd see may be on. WKU didn't help itself with a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty leading up to that TD pass. WKU 24, USF 21.

7:46: Wait. Didn't this just happen? Brandon Doughty again finds a ridiculously open Nicholas Norris, this time on the right side of the field, and he sprints home for a 55-yard touchdown that puts WKU up by 10. Jeff Brohm seeing some things in the USF coverage, and his team executing right now. It's a blurry screenshot, but you can still see below how open Norris was. The pass allows Doughty to break his own WKU passing record from last season. We'll give you the total after the game. WKU 24, USF 14.

9:43: Boom. That didn't take long. Brandon Doughty found Nicholas Norris for a 69-yard TD pass that puts the Hilltoppers up for the first time in the game. Give an assist to the WKU defense after it got a stop on USF's previous drive. Norris' reception was a career long. Below, he does a little celebrating on the sideline. WKU 17, USF 14.

10:23: After USF pounded the Hilltoppers with some punishing runs by Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack, going 61 yards in 10 plays, WKU got some big defensive plays by Dejon Brown, Jontavious Morris and Ge'Monee Brown, to force a 43-yard field goal attempt by Emilio Nadelman, which he missed. Credit the WKU defense with seizing some momentum early in the half. WKU will get the ball at its own 25. USF 14, WKU 10.


After a shaky start, WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty found his rhythm following an interception to start the second quarter. WKU has had a couple of costly misses in the game, one near the red zone and one just outside it, but scored on a Garrett Schwettman field goal as time expired to pull within 14-10 at the half.

After throwing his interception, Doughty completed 12 straight passes for 161 yards. WKU outgained USF 173-83 in the second quarter, but after driving to the Bulls' 6-yard line late in the half, offensive lineman Forrest Lamp was called for a personal foul for pushing a USF defender after the play. That backed up the Hilltoppers 15 yards, and two more USF sacks took them out of field goal range, leading to a rare fourth-and-goal punt.

Still, WKU got a stop after Jake Collins pinned USF deep, and was able to salvage a field goal out of the whole thing.

The Hilltoppers are going to have to find a defensive answer to Willie Taggart's USF ground game. The Bulls didn't throw for a single yard in the second quarter. They don't have to. They're averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

Still, if WKU's offense has shaken off the cobwebs, we should have an exciting second half.

Stats below, click the image to enlarge.


0:00: Garrett Schwettman hit a field goal from 36 yards out after WKU got the ball back with 1:06 remaining in the half and drove 34 in 7 plays. USF 14, WKU 10.

1:37: You see a little of everything in bowl season, like WKU forced to punt on fourth and goal. It happened when the Hilltoppers drove to the USF 6, before offensive lineman Forrest Lamp was whistled for a personal foul for pushing a defensive player in the back after the play. Except that he did it while the play was still going on. At most, I thought it should've been a block in the back. Regardless, Brandon Doughty was sacked on WKU's next two plays, and WKU was out of field goal range. The good news for WKU? Doughty is 7-7 since throwing the interception, and looks to have found his rhythm against this USF defense. A look at the personal foul in the photo below, bottom of picture:

6:17: Nothing like a little controversy. Ace Wales took off to his right and dived into the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown, but the ball came out of his hands as he hit the pylon and a lengthy review ensued. Playing in a baseball stadium might've helped the Hilltoppers on that one. Wales appeared to have fumbled the ball before he reached the goal line, but no replay angle was really conclusive. So, instead of a touchback, WKU gets a much-needed score. The play was set up by a pretty flea-flicker. Brandon Doughty handed off to Wales, who tossed it back to Doughty. The senior then threw a strike to Taywan Taylor, a 53-yard completion. Wales' TD run covered 13 yards, and WKU's scoring drive was just two plays and 38 seconds. See for yourself how close it was below. USF 14, WKU 7.

6:55: WKU got its stop, but not until after a 25-yard run by USF's Marlon Mack. The Bulls have done a nice job cutting back with the ball, and have broken contain on the Hilltoppers for a couple of nice gains. Still, WKU gets the stop and takes over on its own 34.

9:16: Give some credit to the punter when he does a nice job. Jake Collins, rugby style, just unleashed a 58-yard punt that WKU downed at the USF 4. Hilltoppers needed something good to happen. Now they need a stop. Collins' punt was the longest punt in Miami Beach Bowl history.

12:18: Missed tackles aren't a good idea against a team with South Florida's speed. WKU missed a couple of opportunities to wrap up Rodney Adams on a wide receiver sweep to the left, but the Hilltoppers didn't get it done and Adams rolled 37 yards for the score. Big series coming up for WKU after the Bulls went 47 yards in 5 plays and 2:03 following the Doughty interception. USF 14, WKU 0.

14:21: It's not off to a good start by WKU. Brandon Doughty was trying to throw over the middle on third down but was picked off by USF's Nigel Harris, who returned it 23 yards to the WKU 47. The Bulls have good field position and are driving again.


The Hilltoppers have moved the ball but didn't cash in when they drove to the 21 of USF. They were stopped on fourth and 2 there, but converted two other fourth downs and were driving at the end of the quarter, with the ball at the USF 39.

USF got its only score by taking advantage of a couple of big plays -- a 24-yard run by tailback Marlon Mack and a 22-yard completion over the middle. QB Quinton Flowers, who WKU had kept in check for much of the quarter, scampered around the left end to score from 12 yards out.

Brandon Doughty completed just 9 of 17 passes for 60 yards and took a couple of big hits in the quarter. They had a couple of opportunities on deep passes that just missed. He'll need to sharpen up against an athletic USF secondary and a front that has had some success putting on pressure. First quarter stats below (click the image to enlarge):

5:21: USF strikes first. A 24-yard run by Marlon Mack was the play that got the Bulls going. After that, Quinton Flowers found Ryshen Bronson for a 22-yard pickup over the middle, and two plays later Flowers faked a pass, then sprinted to his left to find the end zone. The drive went 62 yards in five plays. USF 7, WKU 0.

7:15: WKU goes three and out, wasting a couple of really nice play calls when passes were just out of the reach of open receivers.

8:09: Through two possessions, USF has managed just 30 yards of offense and run only seven plays. Problem is, WKU hasn't managed much more (46) and just missed a scoring opportunity at the USF 21. Their third series, coming up.

9:36: After driving to the South Florida 21, Jeff Brohm rolls the dice on fourth down and 2, but pass from Brandon Doughty to tight end Tim Gorski falls incomplete and the Hilltoppers lose it on downs. Still no score. WKU takes over at its own 21.

11:28: USF faces a 4th and 1 from its own 30, and Willie Taggart decides to punt. The Bulls’ first possession goes three-and out. WKU will have good field position, taking over at its own 40.

12:35: WKU’s drive stalls after one first down. Taywon Taylor dropped a Brandon Doughty pass over the middle, though he likely wouldn’t have picked up first-down yardage. The ensuing punt was a good one, and USF will begin its first possession at it own 21.


Coin toss: Howard Schnellenberger told us he had been practicing his coin tossing, and it was good luck for WKU. The Hilltoppers won the toss, and took the ball.

Howard Schnellenberger: The former University of Louisville and Miami University coach arrived early and greeted fans and WKU football coach Jeff Brohm before Monday's Miami Beach Bowl. Schnellenberger said of WKU's program: “There’s no reason that #WKU shouldn’t have the same capacity to be great as the University of Louisville.”

The roof will be open: Marlins Park features a retractable roof, and it was out this morning, as the last of some storms moved from the area. But the roof will be pulled back, letting the sun shine in for the game. A comparison: