Zappe slings record-setting seven TDs in home opener blowout of UT Martin

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Brittany Fisher

WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) stands in the pocket during the Hilltoppers’ season-opening 59-21 win over UT Martin on Sept. 2, 2021. Zappe threw seven touchdowns, setting the single-game record for touchdown passes at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The Bailey Zappe era has officially begun.

Football returned to the Hill on a beautiful Thursday night as WKU (1-0) hosted the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks (0-1) in front of a packed Houchens-Smith Stadium with an announced attendance of 16,236.

WKU blew out the Skyhawks 59-21 as transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe threw seven touchdowns, the most ever by a Hilltopper at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“A lot of positives, a lot of things to build off of,” head coach Tyson Helton said after the win. “Felt like the guys were in it the whole game, they were playing for each other, really happy with the overall performance.”

“Now we’ve got to go back to the drawing board, correct some mistakes we had and try to fix the things that can get you beat,” Helton continued. “But it’s a good first win and we celebrate all wins, so very happy for this football team.”

The win snapped a three-game losing streak in season openers for the Hilltoppers, a drought that extended back to 2017 when WKU defeated Eastern Kentucky 31-17. 

It was also the most points produced by a WKU offense since Jeff Brohm oversaw a 60-6 drubbing of Marshall on Nov. 26, 2016.

Zappe completed 28-of-35 of his passes for 424 yards and seven touchdowns in his WKU debut after starting the game with an interception on the first drive of the game. 

“He’s pedal to the metal all the time, he tried to take an early shot versus man coverage, left the ball a little bit inside,” Helton said, talking about Zappe’s bounce back from his early interception. “That’s what I love about him, he’s one snap and clear. He doesn’t have a memory when it comes to that kind of stuff… with the style offense we play, you’re going to have to live with some of that, but it’s good to see him rebound very quickly from that.”

Skyhawk graduate quarterback Keon Howard went 20-for-43 for 195 yards with one touchdown through the air and two touchdowns on the ground. 

The Hilltopper offense exploded onto the scene, accumulating 578 yards of total offense, and six different Hilltoppers caught a touchdown. The UT Martin offense had its ups and downs throughout the game and put up 308 yards in total. 

“The ball got scattered around to a lot of different guys which is good to see,” Helton said. “All our wideouts played, they all caught ball… we want to share the ball and get it to a lot of different people, I thought they caught the ball extremely well tonight, really proud of that receiver group overall.”

Q1

WKU won the coin toss and elected to defer, putting the ball in the hands of UT Martin’s transfer quarterback Keon Howard. 

UT Martin running back Peyton Logan broke out for a 28-yard run on the second play from scrimmage to put the Skyhawks in Hilltopper territory. On the next play, Howard completed a pass to Colton Dowell for a 23 yard gain. 

Running back Zak Wallace converted a fourth-and-two for the Skyhawks later in the drive to set up a two-yard rushing touchdown from Howard, giving UT Martin an early 7-0 lead. 

Graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe trotted onto the field for his much-awaited Hilltopper debut. Zappe completed a 16-yard pass to fellow former Houston Baptist Husky Jerreth Sterns, but his second throw as a Hilltopper ended up in the arms of Skyhawk defensive back Jay Woods on the very next play.

“That was totally my fault to be honest with you,” Zappe said. “The first play we started out, I hit him for 15 yards, we came right back and I see their corners pressing Daewood [Davis]; I just wanted to take a shot but I made a bad throw. I left it inside for the defender to make a play and he did.”

After three consecutive possessions that ended in punts, Zappe got back on track with a deep bomb to redshirt junior Daewood Davis across the middle of the field for a 73-yard touchdown on the second play of the drive.

“[Zappe has] good leadership, full command of the offense, [he] was very poised [and] very comfortable,” Helton said. “You know he saw everything clearly, so those were all good things to see in the first game.”

Redshirt sophomore Brayden Narveson booted the extra point through the uprights to tie the game up 7-7 with four minutes left in the first quarter.     

WKU’s defense forced a three-and-out before Zappe connected with wide-open freshman Malachi Corley across the middle for a 40-yard completion that put the ball on the UT Martin one-yard line. The Skyhawk defense forced a third down by pushing the Hilltopper offense back to the 10-yard line to end the first quarter of play.

Q2

On the first play of the second quarter,  Zappe threw his second touchdown pass to Mitchell Tinsley who sat wide-open in the back of the endzone to give WKU its first lead of the game 14-7. 

The Skyhawks pounded their way to their own 49-yard line before a late pass interference call gave them a first down on third-and-eight. The drive ended when Howard and Wallace fumbled a handoff. 

Redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont dove onto the ball, recovering it on the WKU 41 with 12:11 left in the second quarter. 

WKU made the most of the turnover as Zappe led his team down the field with 14 and 16-yard completions. Zappe gave WKU a 21-7 lead with 9:31 left in the second quarter on a 22-yard toss to Jerreth Sterns for their first touchdown connection as Hilltoppers.

“It’s truly just a blessing to [even be] in this position, I never thought I would be playing FBS football,” Sterns shared after the game. “To be doing it alongside my little brother and Bailey, who I’ve come to be best friends with, it’s honestly just a great feeling.” 

“None of this is possible without ]our front five,” Sterns continued. “They played their tails off tonight and I just think they’re gonna be the unsung heroes all season but they need the love for sure.”

Zappe kept the Hilltopper offense in rhythm after a UT Martin three-and-out. He completed passes to Corley and Tinsley before baiting a Skyhawk defensive lineman to jump offside for a free play, then connected with Jerreth Sterns for a 36-yard completion. 

The Hilltopper offense moved closer to the end zone by pounding the rock before graduate running back Adam Coefield picked up a tough nine yards on third and two. A few plays later, Zappe threw a touchdown to Corley, the fourth different receiver, with 1:43 left in the first half. 

“To be able to go into a game like that against UT Martin and put up points like we did is awesome,” Zappe said. “And to be able to come out of that game clean like I did with no sacks, no pressures, no nothing like that is another great thing to do.”

The Skyhawks kept swinging as Logan burst down the right side of the field for a 31-yard run and Howard connected with his favorite receiver Colton Dowell for a 15-yard gain. Howard and Dowell connected again later on in the drive for a 27-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 28-14 with 10 seconds left in the first half. 

Zappe knelt down to end the first half of play, finishing up the first half of the game with four touchdowns, an interception and 264 yards of offense on 18-of-23 passing attempts. 

Q3

WKU redshirt sophomore Jamale Carothers started the second half with a huge 45-yard kickoff return up the UT Martin sideline. The Hilltoppers continued where they left off in the first half, marching down the field with ease. Zappe capped off the impressive second half opening drive with his fifth touchdown pass of the night and second to Jerreth Sterns.   

UT Martin started out sluggish with a kick return that landed them on their own 15-yard line. The Skyhawks went three and out after an overthrow by Howard on second down and a dropped pass to Dowell. 

The Hilltoppers put up a two-play, 48-second drive that ended with tight end Joshua Simon catching a short pass, then turning on the jets to outrun the Skyhawks defense for a 45-yard touchdown to push WKU’s lead to 42-14 with 11:10 left in the third quarter. 

UT Martin pushed the ball past midfield with a healthy balance of running and passing. Graduate wide receiver Donnell Williams made an outstanding one-handed catch, then took the ball up to the WKU 17-yard line. 

The WKU defense stepped up to force three consecutive Howard incompletions. Redshirt freshman Tyler Larco trotted onto the field for a chip shot 28-yard attempt, but missed the field goal wide right, giving the ball back to a red-hot Hilltopper offense. 

Zappe led the Hilltoppers back down the field with 14, 10 and 15-yard completions. Just when the drive looked like it would stall out, Ben Ratzlaff caught a beautiful toe-tap catch on third-and-four to extend the drive. 

UT Martin’s defense made a stop, forcing a 30-yard field goal. Redshirt sophomore Brayden Narveson made the field goal to put the Hiltoppers up 45-14 with 3:02 left in the third quarter. 

The next UT Martin possession began with a promising start with a 11-yard completion by Howard on third-and-11 before Howard threw his first interception of the game to redshirt sophomore cornerback Miguel Edwards with 1:18 left in the third quarter. Edwards returned the pick 23 yards to the WKU 43 yard line.

“First game catching an interception, I’ll say it was a blessing,” Edwards said. “And it felt good. I just read the concept and the quarterback, and then it kind of took me to the ball.”

Zappe avoided pressure on the last play of the third quarter by rolling to his right before finding Simon wide-open for a 25-yard gain.

Q4

Zappe capped off the drive with his seventh touchdown pass of the game, the most by a quarterback ever in Houchens-Smith Stadium, to Simon with 14:17 left on the clock.

The Skyhawk offense answered back, putting together a near seven-minute drive culminating in a nine-yard rushing touchdown from Howard to cut WKU’s lead to 52-21 with 7:22 left in the game.

Zappe’s historical night ended on the next drive as redshirt sophomore Carson Baker entered the game for him. Zappe finished his night with 424 yards and seven touchdowns, completing 80% of his passes. 

“It feels good to have a quarterback who’s our Commander in Chief,” safety Antwon Kincade said after the game.

Baker picked up right where Zappe left off, leading a drive that resulted in a score after just three plays. Junior Craig Burt Jr. shrugged off a Skyhawk defender for the drive-ending 54-yard touchdown reception with 5:36 left in the game to achieve the final score of 59-21.

Up next, WKU will travel to West Point, New York next Saturday to face-off against the Army Black Knights on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 

The game will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network and on ESPN 102.7 FM with kickoff set for 10:30 a.m. CT on Sept. 11.

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