‘We got the monkey off our back’ – WKU snaps losing streak, defeats ODU 43-20

WKU+freshman+wide+receiver+Dakota+Thomas+%2815%29+celebrates+in+the+end+zone+after+catching+his+first-ever+collegiate+touchdown+against+the+ODU+Monarchs+on+Oct.+16%2C+2021.+WKU+went+on+to+win+43-20.

Steve Roberts / WKU Athletics

WKU freshman wide receiver Dakota Thomas (15) celebrates in the end zone after catching his first-ever collegiate touchdown against the ODU Monarchs on Oct. 16, 2021. WKU went on to win 43-20.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) won its first Conference USA game of 2021 by a score of 43-20 in the rain against the Old Dominion Monarchs (1-6, 0-3 C-USA) Saturday afternoon in Norfolk, Virginia.

“It was a great team win tonight,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said after the game. “I can’t say enough about how our guys just kept fighting and scratching and crawling. Hats off to our defense, creating turnovers [and] sacks, and that was really the big part of the game for us.”

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe aired it out for 397 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. Zappe threw his 100th collegiate passing touchdown on his first score of the game.

ODU redshirt freshman quarterback Hayden Wolff tossed for 327 yards with no touchdowns and two picks in his first start of the 2021 season.  

WKU wide receiver Jerreth Sterns caught 13 passes for 221 yards and a score. Sterns has now topped his season high for three consecutive games.

“There [were] a few comments made that we weren’t necessarily the best offense in the conference and we kind of just took that personally,” Sterns said. “We took it as a challenge. We’re gonna keep showing that we are.” 

ODU sophomore wide receiver Ali Jennings caught 13 passes for 172 yards, while redshirt sophomore running back Blake Watson rushed for 104 yards on 22 attempts for a 4.7 average, the fifth consecutive 100-yard rusher against the Hilltoppers.  

WKU redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont tallied nine tackles to go along with two sacks and an interception. 

Q1 

WKU won the toss and elected to receive. 

WKU started strong out of the gate with a Zappe 45-yard completion to junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns. The Hilltoppers’ opening drive came to a halt three plays later, forcing a 43-yard field goal. The reliable redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson missed the opening drive field goal. Old Dominion’s first possession ended in a punt. 

“Today, it just felt good for us to come out there and start fast,” Ignont said. “I think the biggest thing was they didn’t score on the first possession. That’s happened in every game that we played in, so that was really exciting. We’re just looking to build off that going into these next conference games.”  

WKU moved the ball with ease deep into Monarch territory. Zappe got the Monarch defense to jump on third-and-three to give the Hilltoppers a free first down. 

Two plays later, Zappe tossed his first touchdown of the game to freshman wide receiver Malachi Corley with 9:16 left in the first quarter. Old Dominion did not respond, going three-and-out on its next drive. 

The Hilltoppers started where they left off, moving quickly with the pass game. The possession looked to be stalling out before Zappe hit Corley on a fourth-and-five for six yards, keeping the drive alive. Zappe then unintentionally hit freshman wide receiver Dakota Thomas on a nine-yard touchdown after the ball was tipped up in the air multiple times, extending WKU’s lead 14-0.

The Monarchs finally got the ball moving and into Hilltopper territory before back-to-back sacks by Ignont and graduate defensive end Michael Pitts killed the promising drive.

“Huge shoutout to coach Mo [Mauricie Crum],” Ignont said. “Coach Mo, he was dialing it up today. Every situation, it seemed like we were almost in a perfect play call.”  

The first quarter ended with a Zappe incompletion on second-and-16 after a holding call pushed the offense back.   

Q2 

Redshirt senior punter John Haggerty kicked from his own 18-yard line and flipped the field with a 67-yard punt, pinning Old Dominion back on its own 15. 

Old Dominion began its next drive with a Wolff 30-yard completion on third-and-six to Jennings. The possession came to a screeching halt after a drop by freshman running back Jon-Luke Peaker on second down and a pass breakup by redshirt sophomore cornerback Miguel Edwards on fourth-and-eight, giving the ball back to WKU. 

The Hilltoppers moved into Monarch territory in two plays with 12 and 17-yard completions by Zappe. WKU turned the ball over on downs four plays later after a -1 yard completion by Zappe. 

The Hilltoppers got the ball back quickly on senior safety Antwon Kincade’s interception. WKU converted the turnover into points three plays later on Zappe’s 15-yard touchdown to junior Daewood Davis with 5:23 left in the first half. 

ODU’s next possession got going with a third-and-seven conversion on a 23-yard reception by Jennings. Watson got the Monarchs in the red zone with a 15-yard rush. The drive came to an end with a Juwuan Jones sack. Senior kicker Nick Rice cut the WKU lead to 21-3 with a 44-yard field goal.

WKU responded in three plays with a 74-yard touchdown pitch-and-catch between Zappe and Sterns, leaving 1:48 left in the first half for Old Dominion. Narveson missed the extra point after a high snap, giving the Hilltoppers a 27-3 lead. 

The Monarchs started their two-minute drill with a 34-yard pass by Wolff, but WKU senior DeAngelo Malone strip-sacked Wolff on the next play, giving the ball back to WKU after redshirt senior Jeremy Darvin returned the ball to the Monarch 47 with 1:16 left in the half.

The Hilltoppers converted the turnover into a 20-yard field goal by Narveson as the second half came to an end. WKU led 30-3 at half.   

Q3 

Wolff connected with Jennings on a 13-yard completion to start the second half hot for Old Dominion. The Monarchs converted a third-and-two with a three-yard run from redshirt sophomore running back Elijah Davis. The opening drive stalled out after Ignont picked up his second sack. Rice nailed a 38-yard field goal, his second of the day, cutting WKU’s lead to 30-6. 

WKU’s opening drive was helped out by a facemask call to get them into Old Dominion territory before Zappe chipped away to the one-yard line. WKU did not punch it in on its first two plays and Zappe threw an interception to R’Tarriun Johnson in the endzone to end the possession. 

“A lot of it just comes on to me and being able to execute on my side, and everything will fall into place,” Zappe said. 

The Monarchs went three-and-out after the turnover. Graduate returner DeAngelo Wilson took the ensuing punt 64 yards before tripping at the Monarch’s four yard line. A high snap pushed the Hilltoppers back, resulting in them settling for a 31-yard field goal from Narveson.

Old Dominion bounced back with a 39-yard Wolff completion to redshirt sophomore tight end Zack Kuntz. Two penalties set the Monarchs back before a Wolff completion and Elijah Davis three-yard run gave them a fourth-and-seven at the end of the third quarter. WKU led 33-6 going into the last period.         

Q4  

Elijah Davis rushed for a 19-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the Hilltoppers’ lead to 33-13. WKU went three-and-out on its drive.

The Monarchs continued to cut into the lead on their next drive, marching the ball down the field with ease before a pass interference call put them in the red zone. Watson then cut the lead to 33-20 with a seven-yard touchdown run with 10:17 left to play.

The Hilltoppers started up the offense once more, moving the ball into Monarch territory. WKU converted two third downs before settling for a 41-yard Narveson field goal to extend its lead to 36-20 with 5:41 left in the game. 

Old Dominion went four-and-out on its next drive after a Wolff deep ball fell incomplete on fourth-and-12. WKU iced the game two plays later with a 17-yard touchdown pass by Zappe to Thomas, his second score of the day, to make the score 43-20 with 3:51 left in the game. 

Ignont picked off Wolff to give the ball back to the Hilltoppers to run out the clock. Backup quarterback Drew Zaubi took over QB duties for Zappe for the final handful of snaps and the Hilltoppers clinched their first C-USA win of the year. 

“Offensively, we started out good in the first half, kind of stalled in the second half,” Helton said. “Wasn’t as efficient as we wanted to be in the redzone in the second half, but when we needed to go score at the end to put it away they did a great job. Again, a great night for our team as a whole. We got the monkey off our back and now [we’ve] just got to start stacking those wins up.”   

Up next, WKU will remain on the road and travel to Miami, Florida, to play the Florida International Panthers (1-5, 0-2 C-USA) on Saturday, Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. CT.

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