Sparky Notes: Slow starts and spotty rush defense sink Hilltoppers against Spartans

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


Brittany Fisher

Western Kentucky University senior running back Adam Cofield (7) is tackled at the one yard line during Saturday night’s game against the Indiana Hoosiers in Houchens-Smith Stadium. The Hoosiers won 33-31.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU lost a one-sided affair Saturday night 48-31 against the No. 17 Michigan State Spartans. It was the worst game the Hilltoppers have played so far this season, and here’s why:

114th Defense in the Country

WKU ranks 114th out of 130 FBS programs in total yards allowed in games involving two FBS programs. The Hilltopper defense also surrendered over 500 yards of offense for the second week in a row. The Spartans gained 326 yards and scored 42 points in the first half alone, both absurd totals.

Michigan State’s junior running back Kenneth Walker III became the third opposing player to rush for 100-plus yards on the WKU defense this season. He totaled 126 yards for 5.3 yards a carry with three touchdowns. 

The Hilltoppers are the 11th-worst run defense out of all 130 FBS teams, allowing 216.5 yards per game on 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. WKU has allowed 665 yards on the ground in its last three games including 11 rushing touchdowns in that span. 

The WKU defense has allowed 700 yards through the air in the past two games. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 66% of their passes and have thrown zero interceptions. 

Starting Slow, Again 

The Hilltoppers gave up an abysmal 42 first-half points to the Spartans Saturday night. WKU has been outscored 86-44 by FBS opponents in the first half of its games but has outscored its opponents 53-33 in the second half. 

The Hilltoppers’ FBS opponents have out-gained them by 157 yards in the first half while WKU has out-gained its FBS opponents by 176 yards in the second half. Truly a tale of two teams.

These slow starts can partially be attributed to penalties. Two first-half WKU drives against both Indiana and Army were hampered by false start calls.

For as good as Bailey Zappe has been this year for WKU, it seems he needs a little bit of time to get into the rhythm of the game. In the first two games of the 2021 season he kicked off the Hilltoppers’ opening drives with an interception. 

The first pick came on a woefully under-thrown ball to redshirt junior wide receiver Daewood Davis that was picked off by the UT Martin secondary. The second was a cross-body throw in the middle of the Army defense on a second-and-10 in field goal range. 

Unbalanced Offense

The Hilltoppers can drive down the field with ease thanks to Zappe’s arm. Unfortunately, his eye-catching passing numbers hide WKU’s less-than-impressive rushing attack.

WKU’s rushing game has only accounted for 381 yards on the ground. Once you take away the 65 yards the Hilltoppers have lost on attempts, only 316 total yards have been gained on foot. WKU only averages 3.5 yards per carry compared to its opponent’s mark of 4.7 and has averaged an unhealthy 79 yards per game on the ground. If WKU runs into a secondary that can exploit the team’s preference for the air attack, there will be trouble for the running game and the Hilltopper offense as a whole.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3. Sports Editor Jake Moore contributed to this article.