WKU to face UT Martin in opening-week showdown, Hilltoppers to debut new offense

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WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe unleashes a pass during the Hilltoppers’ spring game back in April.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

Football will be back on the Hill with a full-capacity crowd Thursday night as WKU opens its season against the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks at 7 p.m. CT. 

“It just feels like you’re an American again,” head coach Tyson Helton said after his team’s final preseason practice. “It’s what America is all about. It’ll be an exciting day for us for sure. We got a good football team, they believe in each other, they love each other, they’ll play hard for each other and so long as we go out there and try our best, everything will work out just fine.”

The Air Raid

WKU will finally debut its new offense led by first-year offensive coordinator Zach Kittley with highly hyped Houston Baptist transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe under center. 

Last season at HBU, Kittley and Zappe piloted the most prolific passing offense in all of college football. Zappe tossed for a monstrous 458.3 yards per game, compiling an efficient 15 touchdowns to just one interception in the COVID-19 shortened season. 

The duo will debut the new air-raid system against a Skyhawk defense that allowed 200 yards a game through the air in 2020. 

“Really good football team,” Helton said. “Really good football team. I think it’s a four quarter game, I think it takes everything we got to go out there and win. I think they’re just as good as us – probably in some areas are actually more talented. But football is about lining up, plan executing, and that’s what we need to go do, but [I’m] really impressed with their football team and the new pieces they added.” 

Skyhawks Debut New QB

WKU’s opposition will premiere their own new signal-caller, Tulane transfer Keon Howard. He threw for 314 yards, one touchdown and one interception while completing 43% of his passes last season in the American Athletic Conference. The graduate transfer has made more of a living with his feet rather than his arm, rushing for 456 yards throughout his collegiate career.

“It’s tough when you’re playing a guy that can create with his legs,” Helton said. “First of all I think he’s an excellent passer. He’s very accurate with the football, he’s very smart. He seems to be a good field general out on the field when I watch him, [but] kind of the ‘X Factor’ is he can make plays with his legs.”

“We’ve got to contain him,” Helton continued. “We’ve got to filter him up inside and be able to corral him and get him down when he does break to try to run.”

The Defense

Howard and the Skyhawk air attack will battle the Hilltoppers’ daunted pass defense with new defensive coordinator Maurice Crum leading the charge. WKU allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game last year in Conference USA competition and held quarterbacks to a pedestrian 52.2 completion percentage, a conference best. 

WKU will look to improve a run defense that ranked middle-of-the-pack within C-USA last season with the veteran leadership of 2019 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone and redshirt senior Jeremy Darvin. They are matching up against UT Martin’s rushing attack that had an abysmal year last season, rushing for just 2.6 yards per carry.

“Every year is a new year, the guys that made our defense really solid last year, some of those pieces are gone,” Helton said. “The new guys have to step up, it’s a ‘show me’ world, sort of a ‘what have you done for me lately’ world so our guys understand there’s something to prove there defensively… but we’re about to play a really good offensive football team.” 

Ground Attack

On the opposite side of the field, WKU’s run game will look to get going against a stout Skyhawk run defense that allowed just 3.7 yards per carry last year. The Hilltoppers’ run game will be spearheaded by redshirt sophomore Jakairi Moses who notched a fantastic 5.3 yards per carry a season ago. 

“They’ve got a good front seven on defense so it’s gonna take everything for us to go win the game, but if we execute, don’t turn the ball over [and] play clean football we’ll give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter to go win,” Helton said.

WKU will be searching for its first season-opening win since the program defeated Eastern Kentucky 31-17 in 2017. Helton said he is excited for fans to once again pack the bleachers of Houchens-Smith Stadium. The game is a “white out” and fans are expected to wear all-white to match the team’s uniforms on the field. 

“[I] can’t wait for that atmosphere, I know our fans will turn out,” Helton said. “Our guys are really excited. I think the community is really excited so it’ll be a big deal for us Thursday night.”

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.