Sparky Notes: What could have been

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


Keilen Frazier

WKU wide receiver Ben Ratzlaff (22) makes the catch to put the Hilltoppers in the redzone. The Hilltoppers defeated the Skyhawks to open up their season 59-24 on September 2, 2021 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU lost its first game of the season 38-35 to Army on Saturday. Here’s why:

Starting Slow

WKU started its first drive hot, charging up the field with a mixture of runs and passes. WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe completed his first three passes before throwing an errant cross-body interception on a second down to end the promising drive.

The Hilltoppers’ second drive started the same way, clicking on all cylinders. The offense moved the ball 60 yards on just four plays. A false start set the team back, but on fourth-and-10 Zappe got an Army defender to jump with a hard count to earn a more manageable fourth-down attempt. Another false start pushed the team back to a fourth-and-10 once more, and WKU turned the ball over on downs.

Following the first two drives, WKU went on to score touchdowns on five of its last six possessions. The Hilltopper offense crossed midfield in all but one of its turns with the ball. The passing game accounted for 91% of the total yardage gained for WKU.

Zappe finished the game with his second consecutive 400-yard passing game, ending up with Conference USA Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns turned in his second consecutive game with 100-plus yards and two touchdowns.

The Hilltopper defense mirrored the offense’s start. The defense was handed a short field following Zappe’s interception but got off on the right foot when redshirt senior defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin recovered a fumble after a redzone miscommunication by Army.

The Black Knight’s offense bounced back, scoring touchdowns on its next five possessions. The Hilltopper defensive line came alive during Army’s last three possessions, forcing a four-and-out but also allowing the game-deciding field goal after the Hilltopper defense was given a short field on an onside kick.

Losing the Line of Scrimmage

Anybody who watches Army football knows games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. WKU’s offensive line allowed three sacks while the rushing game only managed a measly 2.2 yards per carry.

Army rushed for a dominant 5.1 yards per carry while surrendering just one sack. Army’s control over the line of scrimmage allowed them to control the flow of the game. The Black Knights won the time-of-possession battle by almost 20 minutes.

“As a d-line, [we were] just a little too worried about the cut or reading the right blocks the right way,” Darvin said following the loss. “Second half, we came in [the locker room], Coach [Maurice Crum] told us to play ‘y’all ball’. That kind of helped us in the second half.”

Questionable Decisions

WKU entered the half down 21-14. Army drove down the field on a 10-play, six-minute drive to extend its lead 28-14. After scoring touchdowns on their final two possessions of the second quarter, the Hilltoppers continued where they left off in the second half. Zappe used quick passes to lead his team down the field into Army territory.

Zappe made an uncharacteristic play, misreading a run-pass option on a third-and-four attempt that would’ve led to a more manageable fourth down or even a first. The following play, head coach Tyson Helton elected to forgo a 46-yard field goal attempt, instead keeping his offense on the field to try and earn a fresh set of downs. Army forced Zappe outside the pocket and into a bad pass in tight coverage, turning the ball over on downs.

WKU redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson went 13-for-14 on field attempts last season, 6-for-6 between 40-49 yards. The percentages say he makes the kick, putting the score at 28-17. WKU eventually lost by three points, making that crucial fourth-down attempt all the more important.

Helton’s second pivotal decision came after his team rallied to cut the lead to 35-28. He elected for an onside kick with 4:58 left in the game and two timeouts in his pocket. Army recovered the onside kick, giving Army a short field extremely close to field goal range.

Army picked up only one first down on that drive, but it was enough to put the Black Knights in field goal range to ice the game 38-28. If Helton kicks it off instead of opting for the onside, WKU has a chance to make a stop and attempt one final drive to tie the game 35-all.

Hindsight is 20/20 for a reason and aggressive decision-making doesn’t always work out, but the result of the game could’ve been much different for the Hilltoppers with tweaked play-calling.

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