Hilltoppers looking to spoil Monarchs’ homecoming, snap four-game losing streak

ODU+redshirt+sophomore+running+back+Blake+Watson+will+be+a+threat+to+WKUs+rush+defense+when+the+two+programs+clash+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+16.

Keith Lucas / ODU Athletics

ODU redshirt sophomore running back Blake Watson will be a threat to WKU’s rush defense when the two programs clash on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The Hilltoppers (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) are flying out to Norfolk, Virginia this weekend to face the Old Dominion Monarchs (1-5, 0-2 C-USA) for ODU’s homecoming game.

WKU is looking to stop a four-game skid and bounce back from its 52-46 loss to UTSA. There are three things to keep in mind for this matchup:

WKU’s high-powered offense vs ODU’s defense 

WKU will walk into S.B. Ballard Stadium with the nation’s best air attack. Graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe ranks second in the nation in passing yards and touchdowns this season while completing a staggering 70% of his passes. 

“He’s the best one I’ve ever been around and that includes Sam Darnold,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said during his media availability on Monday morning. “I love everything about Bailey Zappe. He checks every box from his competitiveness, to his demeanor, to how he operates, to his unselfishness, to his leadership, to his accuracy. He’s the best I’ve been around, and I don’t mind saying that.”

“I think he’s a top five quarterback in the country,” Helton continued. “I think the nation needs to know about him, and I think by the end of the season, they’re all going to recognize that he’s one of the top five quarterbacks in the country.” 

Zappe was named the nation’s best deep ball passer by Pro Football Focus on Wednesday. He is coming off a historic performance, throwing for 523 yards against UTSA, the fourth-most in a game in WKU history. 

Zappe’s favorite target, junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, put up historic numbers of his own last week with 195 receiving yards, fourth-most in WKU history in a single game. Sterns is the nation’s leader in both yards and receptions per game with 148.2 and 11.2 respectively. 

ODU ranks in the middle of the pack in stopping the pass this season, allowing 199 yards per game and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 62% of their passes.

“They’re coached really, really well,” WKU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley said. “Their defensive coordinator [Blake Seiler] was at Kansas State for 10 or 11 years. He learned from Bill Snyder, who’s one of the greatest. I’ve played against him and that staff for five years and it didn’t matter the situation, they always played phenomenal defense there.” 

The Monarchs’ ground attack 

The Monarchs seem to have a favorable matchup against the nation’s 12th-worst run defense. 

ODU’s ground game isn’t anything special too special, averaging 179.2 yards a game on 4.2 yards per carry. ODU’s tandem backfield of redshirt sophomores Blake Watson and Elijah Davis are averaging 5.3 yards of offense whenever one of them is handed the ball.

ODU’s run game has been the focal point of its offense, ranking 21st in the nation in attempts. Keeping the Monarchs’ yards per carry average relatively low is junior quarterback D.J. Mack Jr. with his 2.5 yards per carry on his team-leading 72 attempts. 

The Hilltoppers’ attempts to stop rushing attacks have been fruitless so far this year. WKU has allowed 100-yard rushers in all four of its FBS games this season. Watson most recently rushed for 168 yards on 6.5 yards per carry against Marshall in week six.

ODU’s bad air game 

ODU averages 166.5 yards per game through the air, 14th worst in the nation, on a woeful 53% completion percentage. The explosiveness of the Monarchs’ air attack is non-existent, with only five plays going for over 30 yards. 

The Hilltoppers’ air defense allows 268.8 yards per game while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 63.7% of their passes.

The worst part of WKU’s pass defense is the pass rush, tallying just five sacks in five games, tied for fourth-fewest in the nation. Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, ODU has allowed the 14th-most sacks in the nation this year. Former C-USA Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone will be looking for a breakout performance. 

“A lot of times, [when] you look at teams with high sack numbers, they had a chance to just pin their ears back and go,” WKU defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been in that situation where we could just flat out cut it loose. We’ve [been] fighting from behind where teams are trying to manage the clock a little bit more. So, you get fewer opportunities, and then the opportunities when we do have them, I think [we’ve] got to make those plays.” 

The Hilltoppers and the Monarchs will take the field on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 2:30 p.m. CT.

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