Sparky Notes: passing game goes nuclear, run defense falters in season opener

Sparky Notes is football reporter Wyatt Sparkman’s weekly column that serves to dissect WKU Football’s most recent game.

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Brittany Fisher

WKU wide receiver Malachi Corley (11) attempts to score during the Hilltoppers’ season-opening 59-21 win over UT Martin on Sept. 2, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU throttled UT Martin 59-21 Thursday night in its season opener. 

Tyson Helton’s team put on an offensive master-class while the defense had an up-and-down night. One thing is for certain: This is WKU’s most hyped team since Jeff Brohm was coach back in 2016. 

The Offense goes Nuclear

The Hilltopper offense’s only hiccup of the night happened on the first drive. 

Graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe underthrew a deep ball down the right side of the field that ended up in the hands of Skyhawk cornerback Jay Woods. The following possession ended on a third-and-six incompletion, ringing in redshirt senior punter John Haggerty III’s only appearance of the night.  

Zappe looked sharp, completing his next 11 pass attempts, including his first three touchdowns as a Hilltopper. WKU scored on its next nine possessions of the game, tallying 59 points in total. Zappe broke the record of touchdowns passes thrown in Houchens-Smith Stadium with seven, coming one touchdown shy of tying Brandon Doughty’s school-record of eight in 2014. 

Offensive coordinator Zach Kittley’s high-tempo offense showed how fast it can work, putting up an astounding 587 total yards while losing the time-of-possession battle by seven minutes.

The Hilltopper offense accumulated almost 200 yards more than the Skyhawks. Kittley’s air-raid style of play stretched the field for 12 explosive plays with 15 yards or more per completion. Four out of those dozen plays went for touchdowns. 

While all the attention went to the passing game, the running game and offensive line did their part. The rotating backfield of freshman Kye Robichaux and graduate transfer Adam Coefield led the way on the ground with 84 combined rushing yards on 19 carries for 4.4 yards a carry. The offensive line allowed zero sacks and just one quarterback hit during the game. 

Zappe looked at ease in the pocket and was rarely forced out. 

Bending but not Breaking – The Defense 

The “bend don’t break” mantra encapsulated the defense’s performance Thursday night.  

The defense mimicked the offensive’s start to the game by allowing a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the Skyhawks’ opening possession. Senior running back Peyton Logan broke free for a 28-yard run on the second play of the game. 

WKU allowed 48 rushing yards on the opening possession, which was capped off by graduate quarterback Keon Howard’s two-yard rushing touchdown. The Hilltopper defense allowed a dreadful 201 rushing yards for an absurd 5.9 yards a carry to a Skyhawk offense that averaged just 2.6 yards per attempt last season. 

The offense could be to blame for some of the defense’s faults due to the fast-paced nature of the air-raid. Only two WKU drives lasted more than three minutes, so the defense was constantly out on the field.

The defense stepped up the next three possessions, allowing only 27 yards of offense while forcing two three-and-outs. On the fourth possession after the opening touchdown drive, Will Ignont seized the opportunity by jumping on a fumbled handoff for WKU’s first takeaway of the season.  

On UT Martin’s last six possessions on offense, they were able to move the ball down the field at a constant pace. They reached WKU territory four times and two of those trips resulted in touchdowns. The good news: the first-team defense saw minimal use during those drives, allowing one touchdown and forcing a missed field goal. 

The Hilltoppers’ second team defense struggled during the last three possessions of the game. The Skyhawk offense moved up and down the field with ease, making it into WKU territory on two of the three possessions.

Redshirt sophomore cornerback Miguel Ewdards intercepted a first down pass to halt one of the more promising drives. On the next UT Martin possession he made a beautiful play on a deep ball, almost catching his second interception of the game. 

Like Edwards’ performance, not all things were negative on the defensive side. The secondary played tight coverage throughout most of the game, not allowing for much separation except for the 27-yard touchdown reception by redshirt Junior Colton Dowell to end the first half. 

The Hilltopper defense forced Howard into completing an abysmal 46.5% of his passes, deflecting six of his throws. His receivers had key drops, as well as Howard overthrowing and underthrowing wide-open receivers at times throughout the game. 

The daunting WKU pass rush didn’t manage a sack, but their presence was felt. Howard scrambled around for most of the game or resorted to quick passes to avoid the rush. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin and senior DeAngelo Malone led the way with one quarterback hit each. 

Battle Lines

Next up, WKU will fly out to West Point, New York to face the Army Black Knights on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. There’s a few key things to keep in mind:

No. 1: Keep an eye on the Houston Baptist connection between Zappe and junior Jerreth Sterns. Sterns led the way for the receiving corps, catching seven passes for 107 yards and two scores. Army ranked 115th in the nation in sacks-per-game as a unit last year, and Zappe could be looking at another huge day thanks to plentiful time in the pocket.

No. 2: The WKU offense only managed a measly 12 passing touchdowns all of last season. Zappe’s seven-touchdown performance means he’s already close to clearing that mark.

No. 3:  Army ran the ball more than any other team in FBS last season with 716 attempts, an average of 59.7 times a game. They averaged an outstanding 4.6 yards per carry, and if the Hilltoppers’ run defense plays anywhere close to how they played against UT Martin, WKU could be in for a world of trouble. 

No. 4: Army ranked fourth in the nation in time of possession in 2020. Army’s style of play is to methodically ground-and-pound down the field while chewing up as much clock as possible. If WKU continues putting up three-and-four minute drives on offense, it could lead to a colossal running day for the Black Knights once the Hilltopper defense begins to wear out.

Kickoff against Army is set for 10:30 a.m. CT on Saturday.

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