WKU’s comeback ends with an interception, Hilltoppers fall 52-46 to UTSA

Zappe’s five touchdowns, 523 yards not enough to take down undefeated Roadrunners

WKU+redshirt+freshman+wide+receiver+Dalvin+Smith+%2817%29+evades+UTSA+redshirt+sophomore+cornerback+Ken+Robinson+%2821%29+during+WKUs+game+at+Houchens-Smith+Stadium+on+Oct.+9%2C+2021.+UTSA+won+52-46.

Alexandra Hendricks

WKU redshirt freshman wide receiver Dalvin Smith (17) evades UTSA redshirt sophomore cornerback Ken Robinson (21) during WKU’s game at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021. UTSA won 52-46.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) hosted the UTSA Roadrunners (6-0, 2-0 C-USA) at Houchens-Smith Stadium for its first conference game of the season Saturday night, losing a 52-46 barnburner.

The Hilltoppers’ comeback attempt was quashed by an interception on the three yard line on the final drive of the game.

“We were throwing verticals and Bailey [Zappe] was trying to fit one in there,” head coach Tyson Helton said after the game. “Can’t say enough about how the kid played. We’re down here at the one yard line, we get a chop block. I haven’t seen the call, I don’t know what it looks like, I’m sure it’s probably a flag that needed to be thrown…Bailey’s just trying to do all he could do to try to see if he can throw a seam in there, and it just got away from him.”

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe threw the ball for 523 yards, five touchdowns and an interception on 38-of-60 passing.

Hilltopper junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns pulled in 16 catches for 195 yards to go along with two touchdowns.

UTSA senior southpaw quarterback Frank Harris was 28-of-38 for 349 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. Harris also notched a receiving touchdown and forced a fumble on his own pick, putting the icing on his eye-popping statline.

Roadrunner junior wide receiver De’Corian Clark hauled in all seven of his targets for a whopping 160 yards and a trio of scores.

In total, WKU gave up 564 yards of offense, 192 on the ground and 372 by air for 5.2 and 9.5 yard per averages respectively. UTSA was a perfect 3-for-3 on fourth down attempts and WKU went 0-1. The Hilltoppers were handed eight penalties for a total of 77 yards whereas UTSA only took three for 25.

“We have the rest of the conference left,” graduate offensive lineman Boe Wilson said after the game. “Where we can still achieve what we want to achieve this season. First couple games haven’t gone as planned, but we have the whole season ahead of us.”

Q1 

WKU won the coin toss and elected to defer. 

The Roadrunners started the game by playing fast-and-furious on their opening drive. Harris hit junior wide receiver Joushua Cephus across the middle for a 40-yard pitch-and-catch before Harris connected with junior wide receiver De’Corian Clark for a 30-yard touchdown on just the third play of the game.

Zappe started hot, getting into UTSA territory on WKU’s first play from scrimmage with redshirt junior wide receiver Daewood Davis’ 33-yard reception. The Hilltoppers made it into the redzone but settled for redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson’s 34-yard field goal with 10:11 left in the first quarter. It was Narveson’s 13th make in a row.

UTSA answered back on its next possession, marching down the field with a healthy mix of throws and runs before extending its lead to 14-3 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Harris to junior wide receiver Tykee Ogle-Kellogg. 

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“To get down 14-3, we’ve been there a lot,” Helton said. “Doesn’t mean you can’t come back from it. We’d like to start faster if we can and we’ll continue to work on it.”

Sophomore defensive back Beanie Bishop returned the ensuing kickoff to the WKU 42. WKU picked up two third-and-shorts with a two-yard run from Adam Cofield and a three-yard reception to Jerreth Sterns. Zappe converted another third down before tossing a three-yard touchdown to Sterns with 49 seconds left in the first quarter.

The WKU defense forced a third-and-five as the first quarter came to a close.

Q2 

WKU forced the first punt of the game on the first play of the second quarter. Junior punter Lucas Dean kicked a 45-yard punt, giving the Hilltoppers the ball on their own 26 yard-line. 

Zappe and the Hilltopper passing game dinked-and-dunked down the field before a defensive holding call on UTSA’s senior cornerback Corey Mayfield Jr. put them inside the 10-yard line. Cofield gave WKU a 17-14 lead by muscling his way to a 10-yard touchdown run. Incredibly, the score gave the Hilltoppers their first lead since their game against UT Martin.

The Roadrunners bounced back, getting the ball to midfield in three plays before Sincere McCormick rushed for 15 yards to put them at the WKU 25. The UTSA drive looked to be stalling out before the Roadrunners pulled out a double-pass on a third-and-eight. Harris threw to Cephus before Cephus threw back to Harris, who took it the distance for a 23-yard touchdown to regain the lead 21-17. 

WKU continued its offensive success, marching down the field with ease. Zappe tossed a wide-open 33-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman wide receiver Dalvin Smith to give the Hilltoppers a 24-21 lead with 4:47 left in the first half. 

UTSA got in trouble early on its next possession after Ogle-Kellogg dropped a would-be first down on a third-and-seven. Harris pulled a rabbit out of his hat to convert the fourth-and-seven, scrambling before ending up with the first down. 

Redshirt sophomore A.J. Brathwaite picked off Harris a few plays later but fumbled, giving the ball back to the Roadrunners. UTSA made the most of the opportunity, retaking the lead 28-24 three plays later on a Harris 11-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Oscar Cardenas with 40 seconds left in the first half.

Zappe converted a third-and-eight to get WKU’s one-minute offense on the move. Zappe completed a seven-yard pass to give Narveson a 55-yard field goal attempt. Narveson missed to the right, ending the first half of play and halting his field goal streak at 13.

Q3

WKU went three-and-out to open up the second half after converting two third downs that were called back by penalties. Redshirt senior punter John Haggerty III boomed a 55-yard punt, but UTSA senior wide receiver Sheldon Jones muffed it and WKU senior safety Antwon Kincade scooped it up at the UTSA 24. 

Two plays later, Malachi Corley caught a short pass, falling on a UTSA defender before getting back up and scoring a 24-yard touchdown to give the Hilltoppers a 31-28 lead. 

UTSA answered back, converting a fourth-and-one with a McCormick four-yard run. Harris connected with Clark on a 44-yard pass that set up an 18-yard pitch-and-catch that put the Roadrunners up 35-31. 

The Hilltoppers went three-and-out on their next drive. Haggerty kicked a 67-yard punt to Jones, who returned it 38 yards to the UTSA 43. The Roadrunners ran the ball three consecutive times with McCormick to get inside the WKU 25-yard line. 

A hands to the face call on WKU redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont put UTSA on the WKU 11. The WKU defense held its own, forcing a fourth-and-two on the WKU three-yard line. Harris connected with Cephus for a three-yard touchdown, extending the Roadrunner lead to 42-31. 

WKU moved the ball on its next drive into UTSA territory, but a false start hampered the possession. The Hilltoppers elected to go for it on fourth-and-six but Sterns dropped an open pass, giving the Roadrunners a short field. 

The WKU defense forced a three-and-out. Dean pinned WKU on its own five-yard line. 

On the first play of the drive, Zappe launched a 55-yard pass to Sterns. Zappe capped off the three-play drive by utilizing the scramble drill and finding junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley open for a 40-yard touchdown. WKU went for a two-point conversion, but the attempt failed after Zappe was tackled in the backfield. UTSA led 42-37 with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. 

“It was a shootout,” Wilson said. “Two explosive offenses on the field. We were expecting it to be that way. I wouldn’t want anything else. We were set to win that game.”

The Hilltopper defense forced a third-and-one as the game went into the last quarter of play. 

Q4

McCormick picked up the third down with a two-yard run. Two pass interference penalties, one on third down, helped the Roadrunners move the ball down the field inside the WKU 30-yard line. The UTSA drive stalled out due to penalties of its own doing. Senior kicker Hunter Duplessis made a 35-yard field goal to extend the Roadrunner lead to 45-37 with 10:01 left in the game. 

WKU picked up an early third-and-one with freshman running back Kye Robichaux’s two-yard run. Zappe hit Tinsley on back-to-back plays for 21 and 23 yards before zipping in a 20-yard touchdown to Sterns, his second of the game and seventh of the season. The Hilltoppers failed the two-point conversion, setting the score at 45-43 with 8:04 left in the game. 

UTSA answered quickly, scoring in just four plays on a 43-yard, one-handed catch by Clark, his third score of the night, to give the Roadrunners a 52-43 lead with 6:39 left to play. 

The Hilltoppers dinked-and-dunked down the field quickly before a false start handicapped the possession. WKU settled for a 27-yard Narveson field goal to make it a one-possession game with the score at 52-46 with 4:22 remaining.

“We had to kick the field goal and from then on out it was just basically running a two minute drill,” Helton said. “Guys did a great job to get it down to the [two yard line] and everything’s set up perfect, great position and had the penalty which was very, very costly.”

The Roadrunner offense failed to ice the game on its next possession, punting back to WKU with 3:21 left in the game on the Hilltoppers’ 30-yard line. 

Zappe led his troops down the field all the way to the Roadrunners’ five yard line only to be pushed back to the 20 after the chop block penalty. UTSA’s Clarence Hicks picked off Zappe’s pass on third-and-15 to seal the game. It was only his third pick of the season, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

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WKU will travel to Norfolk, Virginia, to play the Old Dominion Monarchs (1-5, 0-2 C-USA) on Oct. 16 at 2:30 p.m. CT for its first C-USA road game of the season. The Hilltoppers will be attempting to snap a four-game losing streak.

“We’ve got everything in front of us,” Helton said. “We got all our goals in front of us that we want to accomplish. To have one conference loss, that doesn’t keep you out of the hunt by any means. Our football team knows that and they’ll rebound.”

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