Sparky Notes: The defense clocks in

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

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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 won its first Conference USA game of the season on Saturday against the Old Dominion Monarchs by a score of 43-20. It was the most complete game the Hilltoppers have played all year, but the performance was far from perfect.

Defense finally steps up 

The Hilltopper defense finally showed its fangs for the first time in 2021. WKU allowed just 51 yards of offense in the first quarter, the defense gave up its lowest point total of the year (20) while causing three turnovers and matched its season sack total (5) in the process. 

Defensive Coordinator Maurice Crum said last Wednesday his pass rush hasn’t been able to “pin their ears back” because of the Hilltoppers’ slow starts. The pass rush showed just how effective it can be when WKU has the lead.

The first time the Monarchs entered Hilltopper territory, Crum drew up a blitz for redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont. Ignont knocked Old Dominion out of field goal range and graduate edge rusher Micheal Pitts utilized his strength on the next play with a bull rush, stopping the Monarchs in their tracks.

Throughout the first half, the WKU defense bent but it didn’t break. ODU entered WKU territory on five of its seven first-half possessions, but the Monarchs only came away with three points for their efforts. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Miguel Edwards broke up a fourth-down pass and senior safety Antwon Kincade intercepted an overthrow by Monarch quarterback Hayden Wolff. 

The defense went out and made plays to keep the offense ahead. Even though they allowed Old Dominion to score on three of its first four possessions of the second half, the defense held strong with a pass breakup from Kincade to ice the game for the Hilltoppers. 

The Hilltopper defense won this game for WKU. The defense showed that if the offense can get ahead early, the pass rush will be there. If WKU needs a fourth-down stop, the secondary will be there.

Bailey Zappe’s worst performance? 

The above statement probably sounds crazy. Yes, the star gunslinger threw for 397 yards and five scores, but his redzone performance was just not all there. The fact that this was Zappe’s worst performance isn’t a slight against him, rather it shows just how amazing he’s played over the first five games of the season.

On his second touchdown, Old Dominion played great zone coverage and Zappe forced a pass to junior Mitchell Tinsley in the endzone. A member of ODU’s defense had the pigskin in his hands, tipping it up in the air before the ball was caught by WKU freshman Dakota Thomas. This could have been seven points taken off the board for WKU if that bounce went a different way. 

Zappe had a rare miscue in the third quarter when he threw an interception on the one-yard line. Offensive coordinator Zach Kittley drew up a play-action pass to the tight end, but Zappe threw the ball directly to his receiver instead of the back pylon where those types of play go most of the time.

After a great punt return by DeAngelo Wilson, a high snap pushed the Hilltoppers back to a second-and-goal on the 18-yard line. 

Zappe tried to force the ball in between three Monarch defenders, one of whom was able to put two hands on the football before dropping an easy interception. The Hilltoppers settled for a field goal on that drive. 

Zappe has been great this year for WKU, but he has a tendency to force the ball around the redzone. During WKU’s game against UTSA last Saturday, the game ended on a Zappe interception at the three-yard line. His timing was late, allowing a UTSA defender to close the gap and intercept the pass. Zappe has been amazing, but not perfect. He is still human.

Punter Appreciation

Let’s take a moment to talk about how good John Haggerty III has been for WKU this season. Haggerty has quietly put together a stellar special teams campaign, averaging 54.8 yards per punt on 10 punts while kicking four for 60-plus yards. He would have the highest punt average in the nation if he had enough punts to qualify. The Sydney, Australia native has landed four punts inside the 20.

This is by far the best season he has had in his collegiate career. In his first two seasons, he kicked 50-plus yard punts 36.6% of the time. This year, in his limited snaps, he is kicking 50-plus yard punts 70% of the time. Haggerty is someone NFL special team scouts should be keeping tabs on.

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