Perhaps it's only fitting that Vanderbilt's comeback hopes Thursday died with a failed two-point conversion attempt.
All night long, the Commodores stumbled whenever they got near the end zone.
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. Earlier in the game, Vanderbilt had failed to score on three separate trips inside Western Kentucky's 10-yard line.
"I thought all the way to the end we were going to win this game," Vanderbilt coach Derek Masonsaid. "I came into this game that way, and I felt that way all the way through. I'm confident about what this football team can accomplish."
Vanderbilt's comeback hopes instead fell a yard short.
The Commodores had cut the lead to 14-12 when Johnny McCrary threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on fourth-and-goal. Brown made an open-field tackle after Marcus caught Johnny McCrary's pass on a potential game-tying 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."
The Commodores recovered the ensuing onside kick but touched the ball before it traveled the necessary 10 yards.
Vanderbilt was seeking to turn things around after going 3-9 last year in Mason's debut season.
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.
That high-powered Western Kentucky offense was scoreless for the first 44 minutes of Thursday's game.
"Coach Mason is a heck of a coach," Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty said. "He's top-notch. He's got a lot of different schemes, throws a lot of different things at you, a lot of blitzes. You've got to be ready for it."
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 to put the Hilltoppers ahead 14-6.
Vanderbilt's Tommy Openshaw kicked a 49-yard field goal and a 26-yarder. The Commodores' red-zone struggles prevented them from scoring more often.
Three trips inside the Western Kentucky 10 failed to produce points when McCrary threw two interceptions in the end zone and 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.
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 in the closing seconds.
But he couldn't help thinking about those interceptions.
"Those two mistakes could possibly have changed the whole outcome of the game," McCrary said. "We'll be able to grow from that and get ready for next week."